- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2009


A starry-eyed exit strategy is no substitute for winning the war in Afghanistan. On Monday, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called for talks with moderate Taliban elements to shore up the progress being made on the ground in southern Afghanistan. The Manchester Guardian reported that “there is even talk in London and Washington of a military ‘exit strategy.’ ”

Leaving so soon? The recent troop surge in Afghanistan has cleared the Taliban from some of the areas they previously occupied, and there has been less fighting than expected. Generally, the insurgents are not standing to battle the thousands of Marines and coalition forces flooding into Helmand province and other areas. Withdrawing makes sense from their perspective; they are greatly outmatched, and where the insurgents decide to take a stand, they tend to get wiped out. This is guerrilla warfare 101.

Taliban strengths are mobility and morale. Their current strategy was laid out earlier this month by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s second-in-command, who, according to Newsweek, told his commanders to focus on hit-and-run attacks, ambushes and the planting of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). “Keep your weapons on your backs and be on your motorcycles,” Baradar reportedly told his subcommanders. “America has greater military strength, but we have greater faith and commitment.”

That being said, we should not be surprised if the Taliban also want to negotiate because it has worked well for them in the past.

Negotiation is a tactical expediency for the guerrilla fighter, not a means of finding lasting solutions to complex problems. If the enemy can be persuaded to leave, it is much easier than trying to drive him out.

In September 2006, the Taliban agreed to a truce in the Helmand province town of Musa Qala. They agreed to renounce violence, and NATO forces under the command of British Gen. David Richards, who had negotiated the truce, withdrew from the town. In February 2007, the Taliban overran Musa Qala and jailed the moderate tribal leaders who had brokered the deal.

The town remained under Taliban control for most of 2007 until it was retaken by coalition forces. Now the area is controlled by Mullah Abdul Salaam, a former Taliban commander who switched sides and helped NATO regain the city. Mullah Salaam’s former compatriots killed his son recently and followed up by attacking the young man’s funeral. In this neighborhood, peace has a price.

The successful American strategy in Iraq was based on the “clear, hold and build” formula. Clearing is the easiest part. Helmand province has been “cleared” every year for the past three years. Holding the cleared region and building on that security are more difficult. This is not because the enemy can drive our forces out, but because of the propensity of policymakers to focus on finding an “exit strategy” rather than winning.

Agreements with the Taliban that require the quick departure of our forces are certain to be broken as soon as coalition boots leave the ground. The Taliban will then reoccupy the ground they previously held. That will bring us back to the need to “clear” it again.

There’s no victory on a treadmill.

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