Home inFocus 9/11: Past and Present Afghanistan: The Long War We Never Understood

Afghanistan: The Long War We Never Understood

Thomas Joscelyn Fall 2021
Members of a Taliban delegation, led by chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (C, front), leave after peace talks with Afghan senior politicians in Moscow, Russia May 30, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Evgenia Novozhenina)

Thomas Joscelyn is senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and senior editor of FDD’s Long War Journal. Much of his research focuses on al-Qaeda and Islamic State operations, and U.S. military and political actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has served as a consultant to the FBI counterterrorism division and has testified before both House and Senate Committees. This interview is taken from a JPC Webinar hosted by inFOCUS editor Shoshana Bryen. The full audio and video can be seen on the JPC website.

Thomas Joscelyn: I’ll argue to the end of my life that the U.S. never really understood who we were fighting in Afghanistan. Just recently, President Biden said during a press conference that al-Qaeda was gone from Afghanistan. Some people say this was the slip of the tongue. I would say that the inclination of America’s political elite has been, across both parties, and three different administrations now, to make that claim in one version or another.

It is rooted in the policy desire to get out. 

And in fact, most of the past 10 years, America has just been trying to get out of Afghanistan as opposed to actually fighting to win or actually trying to affect some other policy outcome that makes sense. But if you ask a lot of senior policymakers, or politicians, or even people in the intel bureaucracy about al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, it’s not a real organization for them.  It became an abstraction in the minds of many people in Washington.

As the nerd who studies the biographies of terrorists, it’s not an abstraction for me. The relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban is still strong. al-Qaeda is not gone from Afghanistan. Just since November of 2020, we’ve tracked firm evidence showing that they are in at least 18 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is the number two of the Taliban, is deeply in bed with al-Qaeda. He and his family really built al-Qaeda. And if he’s not al-Qaeda, he is as close to al-Qaeda as you can become without being al-Qaeda. 

Which brings me this: al-Qaeda, twenty years after 9/11, remains a cohesive international organization. And the U.S. withdrawal is a boon for the global jihadi movement and al-Qaeda. 

We are documenting right now how al-Qaeda in West Africa, East Africa, Syria, Yemen, and different components throughout South Asia and elsewhere, are all celebrating, saying this as a monumental victory. From their perspective, it’s a reason to show that their violence, their terrorism, their jihadism has been validated. The mujahideen beat the Soviets the first time around in Afghanistan, and now the second iteration of jihadis have beaten America the second time around.

Sirajuddin Haqqani’s father declared victory over the Soviets on behalf of the mujahideen. Now, today, he, the son, and you can just think of the psychological import of this, the son gets to declare victory over the Americans. This is a major development in the history of jihadism. It’s a boon for al-Qaeda. And I believe this is going to have ramifications for a generation to come.

inFOCUS: You are the editor of the Long War Journal. Tell us what a long war is. Is it actually a way to defeat people? Do we have to plan to be at war for generations because those guys look like they’re going to be at war with us for generations?

Joscelyn: “Long War” was a term that bubbled up in the Pentagon very briefly to describe the effort against jihadist al-Qaeda and then its various derivatives. But it speaks to how the American side in this war never stuck to a formal definition or any definition, really, of who they were fighting. And you’ll recall what was formerly known as the “global war on terror” slowly devolved into what was known as “overseas contingency operations,” which is really just gibberish.

But why has it been a long war? The fundamental thing about our jihadist enemies on is that they’re not organized like the conventional military forces we defeated in World War II. They are organized as insurgents, guerilla fighters. And as anybody who has studied insurgencies knows, they can bedevil us. They can be very difficult to overcome and defeat. Most people don’t know this, but al-Qaeda has actually studied the Vietnamese insurgency. They studied Mao. They studied how to develop into an insurgency force capable of reconquering Kabul. 

That insurgency platform has proliferated. You have al-Qaeda insurgencies, and ISIS insurgencies, which are a little bit different but draw from the same well, all over the globe. These insurgencies are primed to fight a long war, and they’re going to continue fighting a long war whether America fights it or not.

The Role of Pakistan

iF: Pakistan formed, housed, and runs the Taliban, and the U.S. supports Pakistan significantly. Is it fair to say that the U.S. could have pushed our allies, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, to curtail or stop the Taliban at some point in the past?

Joscelyn: Long War Journal has been banned in Pakistan for over eight years; the website is physically banned because the Pakistani government and military intelligence services have been deeply in bed with the Afghan Taliban leadership, the Haqqanis, and others. They have played a vital role in providing safe havens and support for the insurgency that has captured Kabul.

The possible fundamental miscalculation that the Pakistani establishment made is that what happens in Afghanistan doesn’t stay in Afghanistan. And one of the first places that it spills over is Pakistan. We’ve documented daily how jihadis in the Pakistani Taliban, which is openly loyal to the Afghan Taliban, have been carrying out terrorist attacks almost every single day.

There is footage on CNN where [correspondent] Clarissa Ward interviewed a fighter. The fighter said, “Our goal was for sharia to be implemented here in Afghanistan, but that’s not the end. Someday sharia will be implemented all over the world.”

Much of the Taliban thinks along those lines, leaders and fighters. 

Now, about America pushing Pakistan, one of the fundamental problems in the war in Afghanistan was that the initial invasion that overthrew the Islamic emirate in late 2001 came with a set of diplomatic demands that Secretary of State Colin Powell issued to the Pakistani state. 

And if you go through those demands, you’ll realize that only one of the 10 or 11 demands was ever satisfied. The others were not. And part of the failure here is that there has been no consistent American leadership to hold Pakistan accountable for failing to live up to those other demands. We’ve only seen furtive attempts really to hold the Pakistanis accountable, like withholding aid for a time in 2017, but there’s never been a systematic effort.

Then there is America’s fear of Pakistan. Pakistan has had a fast-growing nuclear arsenal over the past 29 years, in a state teeming with jihadism Islamism, and extremism. It’s unstable.

The thinking in American quarters is we need their military to keep it together because who knows what happens if they can’t. But I would say that that calculation came at the cost, in particular, of losing the war in Afghanistan to the jihadis who have been in bed with the Pakistani state. It’s a complicated thing, and I think Pakistan may have miscalculated here, and there’s going to be a surge in jihadism in Pakistan itself in the coming months.

Nation Building

iF: President Barak Obama did the Afghan surge. And he made it very clear that the parameters were Afghanistan and Pakistan together. Talk to us about nation-building. And what does it mean when we say that the way to solve the jihadi problem – the sharia problem, the terrorism problem – is to build societies of Western-oriented people. That’s what he wanted, and he put a lot of money in it.

Joscelyn: We’ve had presidents who didn’t really care about this and didn’t really want to deal with this. And given the rhetoric you just cited, keep in mind that more Americans died during the surge under President Obama in Afghanistan fighting than during the rest of the war.

The commander in chief who oversaw that has been remarkably silent. That’s because he had an ambivalence about being there in the first place, despite the flowery rhetoric about teaching girls to read and building a civil society. Remember, his surge came with an 18-month timestamp on it that said basically, we’re going to fight for 18 months, and then we’re going to start getting out. So, the surge he announced in 2009 had ended by 2011. Then, by 2014, he announced the end of America’s combat operations in Afghanistan.

Think about that from a war-fighting perspective. How can you stay in a country that’s ravaged by war, where the other party is continuing to fight, and you say, “Well, we’re going to stay, but we’re not going to have combat operations or fight?” Of course, America did continue to have combat operations. But it speaks to the psychological ambivalence and cognitive dissonance here on this war, and it explains a lot of the failures. America stayed there even after its political leaders had quit on the war.

It’s not true that America has been nation-building in Afghanistan the whole time. It is true that an awful lot of money was wasted. It’s also true that America has essentially rearmed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, making it stronger by giving it a stronger infrastructure and military than it had 20 years ago. This is a monumental debacle.

Accountability for Failure

iF: Where is accountability for this? Is this a military failure? Is it a political failure?

Joscelyn: It starts with the political class. We need better political leadership. I’m going to criticize the military in a second, but look, for all his faults, I think President Bush was correct that each president has to synthesize this monumental amount of information and make a decision based on the information at hand.

I would argue that American presidents have made the wrong decision time and time again when it comes to the Afghan war. 

It goes back to the 1990s, when Bill Clinton passed up multiple opportunities to kill bin Laden and some of the senior al-Qaeda leadership with drone strikes. It’s in the 9/11 Commission Report. President Bush, unfortunately, didn’t kill Osama bin Laden. He could have done more to send American forces for a use of overwhelming force for a discrete period to really finish the senior al-Qaeda leadership, and he didn’t. And that was a costly mistake.

And then Barack Obama comes in, and he doesn’t really want to fight this war but has a surge and then ends it and says, “We’re not going to fight at all, and we’re going to have combat operations come home.” And then, he also pursued these fanciful peace talks with the Taliban, and really a lot of apologias for the Taliban sunk in.

And then President Trump comes in 2017. He wants out. He says over and over again, “I want out.” He agrees to stay, and then by 2018, he says, “We’re out, and the Taliban is our counter-terrorism partner.” 

This is the type of nonsense in political leadership that we’ve seen. It starts with erratic political leadership and then goes to the military leadership. Military service members in the field did a great job with a bad hand, and they absolutely deserve our respect. 

But the leadership has been so cavalier regarding what was going on, not really paying attention. From 2014 on, the Afghans really did shoulder the burden in terms of casualties – 66,000 Afghan soldiers and security forces died in this war under feckless leadership from our generals. The casualty rate for the Americans was much, much, much lower, very small.

It wasn’t until I started working with people in government or dealing with government agencies that I learned of the concept of “failing upward,” and dealing with the generals of Afghanistan, that you could fail constantly. It didn’t matter that you failed just as long as you were saying what people wanted to hear, and you were part of the herd. But how is it that we can have failure after failure after failure, obvious failures, and there’s never any accountability? That’s the part that makes me pessimistic because can’t make a comeback unless there’s some sort of accountability for the failures at hand.

iF: Was our nation-building misdirected in trying to build a government in Afghanistan similar to ours, rather than what might work for them?

Joscelyn: Yes, yes, yes. Absolutely. The problem was compounded on the military side because the U.S. and its allies built a Western-style military that wasn’t built to fight the wars that Afghans fight. So that is absolutely correct, and again, there wasn’t a consistent effort to build the Afghan government or Afghan security force, so I don’t want to say it was a 20-year effort that was consistent or well thought out. But to the extent that there was an effort, it was that, and it was flawed.

Iran and the Taliban

iF: What is the likelihood that Iran will actually align with the Taliban?

Joscelyn: Unfortunately, the Iranians own a share of this victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan. This was missed by a lot of our political leaders. The myth is that Iran was very helpful after the overthrow of the Taliban’s Islamic emirate in 2001 and was on the side of the international community in trying to stand up a new government. But Khairullah Khairkhwa, who was at Guantanamo and is now a senior Taliban official, actually negotiated in 2000 and 2001 with the Iranians; he admitted it many times. He negotiated the agreement on behalf of Mullah Omar and the Taliban for the Iranians to help work with the Taliban against us in Afghanistan.

We can point to a number of similar arrangements in which the Iranians provided facilitation, safe haven, arms, training for different parts of the Taliban’s insurgency. They know the Taliban very well; better than we do. And they know how to reach accommodation with them, even though they were opposed to one another back as far as 1998.

iF: Was there an assumption that either the Taliban was going to turn on al-Qaeda, or that, in fact, they were not close?

Joscelyn: This is one of the key fault lines in this war: This narrative was false. In fact, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are not just two organizations that are aligned. They are blood brothers. They are intermingled. And oftentimes, you can’t tell them apart because you don’t really know who’s the Taliban guy or who’s an al-Qaeda guy. That’s the lesson of the Haqqanis, for example.

This intermingling started in the mid-1990s. Mullah Omar never betrayed Osama bin Laden. He never turned him over to the West. But what we came to learn, and this is one of the most disturbing aspects of this war, is that this Taliban apologia set in, a narrative that was basically pretending that the Taliban wasn’t really culpable for al-Qaeda’s actions. That the two really weren’t all that close and there was this daylight between them that could be exploited if the circumstances were right.

The bottom line is that there’s never been any evidence of that. There’s never been any reason to believe that. Meanwhile, at Long War Journal, we’ve been accumulating almost on a daily basis more and more and more evidence of how intertwined the two really are.

iF: The president has said that Taliban is a “mortal enemy of ISIS.” Really?

Joscelyn: There is an ongoing ISIS threat in Kabul. We’ve reported on that. They are trying to play spoiler here. The reason why I talk a lot more about al-Qaeda in this situation is because, if you actually properly understand and define it, al-Qaeda just had a major strategic victory. 

ISIS is trying but ISIS hasn’t had a strategic victory in a long time. It has never had anything close to what the Taliban-al-Qaeda axis did. In fact, there was a big ideological argument between the two sides. They have operational disagreements. This speaks to how confused the U.S. military became in Afghanistan that they didn’t even know who they were fighting or on whose behalf they were fighting. They didn’t even know anymore. They were confused. And that speaks to the systemic failures I’m talking about.

iF: People who listen to this show on a regular basis know that I, being an optimist, like to end every conversation on an optimistic note. You’re making that very difficult.

Joscelyn: Sorry.

iF: On the other hand, you have helped to put the debacle in Kabul into a perspective that is broad and deep. Our understanding has increased exponentially. And for that, we thank you.