In Washington, it’s a term that sends shivers down policymakers’ spines — often invoked to describe an unknown or undesirable alternative to a policy that is problematic and often overly idealistic, yet that officials nonetheless desperately want to succeed.
In 2007, soon after U.S. authorities had announced a high-stakes troop surge in Iraq, a group of governors visiting Washington asked a popular question of the day: “What’s Plan B?” The White House offered a befitting response: “To make Plan A work.” More recently, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry articulated a variety of messy and complicated Plan B options, should a new and fragile ceasefire in Syria not hold — from a partition arrangement to deeper collaborations with the Syrian opposition.
And then there’s Afghanistan.
Ever since U.S.-led forces stormed into the country in 2001 to topple the Taliban regime and eliminate al-Qaeda sanctuaries, Washington’s exact objectives have been difficult to discern. For the Obama administration, Plan A until 2014 consisted, broadly speaking, of using military force to beat back, if not defeat, the Taliban insurgency and bring some semblance of stability to Afghanistan in order to ensure that al-Qaeda could never shelter there again.
In 2014, foreign troops ended combat operations in Afghanistan with the war still raging. Consequently, Washington’s post-2014 hopes for Plan A rest on an elusive political aim: full-throated support for, and furious efforts toward, a reconciliation process between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban. While Washington seeks to support such a process, it continues to advise and assist beleaguered Afghan troops. Unfortunately, for Washington, betting the farm on a peace process could amount to a big strategic mistake — and yet the alternatives are no more promising.
Peace Talks: The Putative Yet Perilous Plan A
In effect, Washington is banking on a peace deal to end the Afghanistan war — a highly ambitious objective that is a long shot at best.
Unsuccessful efforts to engage the Taliban in talks extend back more than 10 years. To be sure, there have been periods of promise. In July 2015, Taliban representatives launched formal negotiations with Afghan government officials in Pakistan. However, the talks were quickly torpedoed by the news that Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar had been dead for several years. In recent months, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States, and China have formed a Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) to prepare the grounds for peace talks. For weeks, the QCG has insisted that direct talks between Kabul and the Taliban are just around the corner — until March 5, when the Taliban released a statement saying they currently had no intention to participate in talks.
There are three good reasons to fear that Washington’s Plan A is more likely to fail than succeed.
First, the Taliban have little incentive to lay down their arms and seek a peace deal, given their strong performance on the battlefield. One may argue that this position of strength could actually incentivize the Taliban to join talks, given that the movement could enjoy a favorable bargaining position. For now, however, the Taliban leadership has refused. At any rate, Kabul is unlikely to accept the large demands of an emboldened Taliban — which may include receiving ministerships. There’s no indication Kabul has even accepted the Taliban’s preconditions for talks — which include the departure of all foreign troops.
The second reason to be skeptical about a successful peace process is the fragmentation of the Taliban, and the influential internal interests that are rigidly opposed to talks. Taliban leader Mullah Mansoor, who is said to support the idea of reconciliation, is opposed by powerful anti-peace factions that would likely remain active on the battlefield if peace talks were to begin — and even if a peace deal were to be announced. There may need to be an intra-Taliban reconciliation process before there can be one with the Afghan government.
The third reason to be skeptical is Pakistan. For one thing, some within the Afghan political class resent the prominent role that the QDC has accorded to its mistrusted neighbor. For another, by no means is Pakistan guaranteed to bring the Taliban to the peace table — a core justification for its inclusion in the QDC. Quite simply, Pakistan is losing leverage it has long enjoyed with the Taliban — leverage derived from the sanctuaries it has granted to the Taliban in North Waziristan. Taliban triumphs in Afghanistan have allowed them to carve out new de facto sanctuaries in that country. Additionally, a Pakistani military offensive in North Waziristan (targeting other militant groups) has driven Afghan Taliban forces into Afghanistan, further dampening the appeal of a Pakistan-based sanctuary. From a broader regional stability perspective, these developments are all the more concerning given that some Pakistani Taliban factions are also now holed up in Afghanistan, and use the country as a base for attacks on Pakistan — including the December 2014 school massacre in Peshawar.
Keep in mind as well that while Mullah Mansoor is believed to be close to the Pakistani security establishment, some Afghan Taliban factions harbor no love for Pakistan. As I wrote two years ago, interviews with Taliban detainees, conducted by NATO interrogators back in 2011, revealed that many didn’t trust Pakistan and resented the tight control exerted on them by Pakistani intelligence. And this doesn’t even get to the question of Pakistan’s questionable commitment to peace, given its pursuit of policies meant to support and strengthen violent forces in Afghanistan that aim to minimize India’s footprint. Recall that back in 2012, Afghanistan’s High Peace Council launched a “Peace Process Roadmap to 2015” plan that, like the current QDC model, involved a central Pakistani role. This initiative, suffice it to say, failed to achieve its purpose.
Not Enough Time to Give Peace Talks a Chance
This all underscores that the time has never been riper to pose that uncomfortable question: If not reconciliation in Afghanistan, then what?
Washington is unsurprisingly mum on the matter, but its implied answer is patience — give peace talks more of a chance, and especially, as U.S. diplomats have told me privately, because there is no better alternative. Interestingly, this was the very position articulated to me by a senior Pakistani official in Islamabad last month, who insisted that a reconciliation process can be successful so long as there are no short-term deadlines.
A position of strategic patience has some merit, but it is at best shaky. For instance, in time, the Islamic State’s growing profile in eastern Afghanistan — where some disaffected Taliban fighters have thrown their support behind the group and are engaging Taliban forces in battle — could compel the Taliban to step off the battlefield and negotiate an accord (that said, at this point Taliban forces are successfully fighting off their Islamic State-aligned foes). Additionally, perhaps down the road Mullah Mansoor could solidify his hold on power and impose enough organizational discipline to get rival factions behind him in support of reconciliation (given the extent of Taliban fragmentation, however, such an outcome is unlikely). Finally, the Taliban may in due course become less rigid about their preconditions for talks. The group, at least rhetorically, has telegraphed a willingness to be flexible — as seen in a statement following a Pugwash conference in 2015, when it said that women should enjoy the right to knowledge, work, and ownership. Of course, such tactics should be taken with grains of salt; the Afghan Taliban often decry attacks on civilians (including Pakistani Taliban attacks on polio workers in Pakistan) even as it continues to attack civilians. Additionally, years ago, mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan often resorted to conciliatory messaging to trick the Soviets.
The problem, however, is that the stakes are too high to wait it out. Afghanistan’s stability hangs in the balance, and by the thinnest of threads. The Taliban’s clout now extends far beyond their traditional bastions in the south and east — where they are retaking territory — and into the country’s northern reaches. Alarmingly, Afghan forces are now effecting what Kabul describes as “strategic retreats” from areas of Taliban strength or outright control. Reports abound of Afghan troops abandoning their bases, and of undisciplined militias unable or unwilling to fulfill the security responsibilities that Kabul has outsourced to them. The Taliban are not about to take Kabul, but their writ extends to areas far beyond it.
For the White House, the sole advantage of waiting reconciliation out is that it can run out the clock and wait for the next administration to deal with the mess.
A Regional Plan B for Afghanistan
There’s little the United States can do in Afghanistan at this point to improve the situation on the ground in a major way. That’s because any policy alternatives to political reconciliation are either insufficient or unrealistic.
Major troop level increases or the return of large numbers of ground troops in a combat role are off-the-table options — at least until after the next presidential election. At any rate, more than 100,000 foreign troops failed to stabilize the country in previous years. Additionally, at the height of the war, one in five NATO troops were based in a single province, Helmand, and yet today the Taliban have retaken significant swaths of the region. Stepped-up training and advising for Afghan forces, or drone strikes against al-Qaeda and Haqqani Network targets, would be helpful but far from a game-changer. Some have also suggested that Washington cut all military aid to Pakistan to undercut its ability to provide material support to the Taliban and Haqqani Network. However, even those that support such a move would acknowledge that it is unlikely given the realities of the U.S.–Pakistan relationship.
Broadly speaking, maintaining residual U.S. forces in Afghanistan is essential because they provide psychological boosts to Afghan forces and help plug warfighting capacity gaps. Still, residual troops are no silver bullet for escalating instability.
Ultimately, a successful Plan B — one that weakens the insurgency in a meaningful way — will require Afghanistan and its neighbors to step up in a big way. Unfortunately, however, the parameters of such a policy have long been proposed — and little progress has been made. Kabul must take major steps to strengthen an economy that has suffered from the withdrawal of foreign forces and is further threatened thanks to international donor fatigue. It must also do more to combat corruption. A weak economy and widespread graft boost recruitment to the insurgency — particularly so long as the Afghan government fails to convince impoverished and aggrieved potential recruits that it is a better alternative to the Taliban. Kabul also must somehow find additional ways (beyond the support it already receives from foreign troops) to strengthen its security forces — a hopelessly tall order given the range of problems that afflict them. The recent acquisition of four Russia-made attack helicopters from India — a transaction I analyzed for War on the Rocks in December — is an encouraging step forward, yet does little to address more fundamental challenges such as illiteracy and rampant desertions within the Afghan forces.
Meanwhile, Russia and Iran — both plagued by epidemics of heroin sourced from Afghanistan that provides major financial windfalls to the Taliban — should help Kabul implement stronger anti-narcotics measures. Security permitting, gas-rich Central Asian states should propose small pipeline projects to enhance Afghan energy security, which would strengthen the country’s economy. China should ensure that its extractive projects in Afghanistan bring real benefits to local communities. India should consider further arms sales to Afghanistan, while weighing the very real risk of provoking Pakistan’s ire. Again, these measures, as beneficial as they could be, have been proposed, with little actual progress, time and time again. Sadly, there’s little reason to think they’ll be any more successful in the coming months — and especially with a smaller foreign troop presence and the threat of a smaller foreign aid presence.
As for Pakistan, its policies have enabled a raft of terrorist groups to flourish on its soil. Many of these groups — particularly the Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba — have partnered operationally with the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan, and enjoy the capacity to keep doing so. Meanwhile, even as Afghan Taliban fighters opt for new sanctuaries in Afghanistan, the Haqqani network remains ensconced in Pakistan — from the Khurram tribal agency to, possibly, the Islamabad area, where one Haqqani leader was shot dead in 2013. So long as militancy-friendly realities in Pakistan endure, the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is unlikely to die.
In effect, there are no good options for the United States in Afghanistan — all possible Plan Bs are as problematic as Plan A. And sadly, it is the Afghan people who will suffer the most. Many of them, in fact, are already so desperate that they are leaving the country.
A Modest Yet Meaningful Plan B: Aiding Afghan Refugees
Afghanistan’s ever-worsening security situation has fueled a fresh and ferocious human exodus. In recent months, the country has issued an average of 2,000 passports daily — a threefold increase from previous months. With Iran and Pakistan — historically the two most common destinations for Afghan refugees — no longer as accommodating, Afghans are now pouring in to Europe. Last year, Afghans comprised 21 percent of refugee sea arrivals in Europe (out of more than 500,000 overall), and more than 30,000 have already arrived in Greece this year.
This is a daunting challenge that the United States can actually help tackle in a meaningful way. Washington — and other NATO partners with troops in Afghanistan — should ensure that Afghans are included in European Union quotas that distribute refugees among member states. Washington should also tear away the red tape that has kept several thousand Afghans who worked for the U.S. government and military in Afghanistan from receiving special visas to enter America.
The United States can’t save Afghanistan, but it can better support those who have fled it. This would be a Plan B that is undoubtedly modest, but also practical and actionable — and therefore well-worth pursuing.
Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @michaelkugelman.
Photo credit: ISAF Media