Stratfor looks at Afghanistan and sees a Conflict With No Time Limit

Summary: Stratfor has been one of the few geopolitical research shops that has seen the madness of our war in Afghanistan. So their new report deserves attention. But it will be ignored. We prefer advice from “experts” who have been consistently been wrong. Phase two of the war begins soon. The body bags will arrive soon. Only our soldiers and their families will care.

Afghanistan war

“In Afghanistan, a Conflict With No Time Limit”

Stratfor, 24 May 2017.

Forecast Highlights.

  • The Pentagon’s move to deploy more troops to Afghanistan, should U.S. President Donald Trump approve it, would be aimed at empowering the Afghan National Security Forces to eventually inflict enough casualties on the Taliban to encourage them to negotiate.
  • Until the factors that contribute to the conflict — including the Afghan forces’ weakness and Pakistan’s support for the Taliban — have been addressed, the prospects for ending the war will be dim.
  • Lax border enforcement between Afghanistan and Pakistan will ensure that militants continue launching attacks into both countries from the border regions, further complicating efforts to end the war.


The invasion routes into Afghanistan are well worn at this point in history. The pathways leading out of the country, on the other hand, are far less clear. This is the predicament U.S. President Donald Trump faces as he weighs the Pentagon’s proposal to send up to 5,000 troops to Afghanistan to support the struggling Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in their 15-year war against the Taliban. If Trump approves the measure, Washington will escalate its involvement in a conflict that has so far lasted through two presidencies. The move would entail granting U.S. troops greater authority on the battlefield, and may well invite a commensurate personnel contribution from Washington’s allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

But as much as the Afghan military could benefit from reinforcements — the Taliban are intensifying their attacks as part of the group’s annual spring offensive — Washington understands that more troops will only accomplish so much. The reasons for the war’s endurance are much deeper and more complicated than the number of boots on the ground. And until these underlying factors are addressed, peace will continue to elude Afghanistan.

US troop levels in Afghanistan

Enfeebled Forces.

One of the biggest issues preventing a resolution to the conflict is the Afghan military’s weakness. The ANSF lost a key source of support in 2014 when President Barack Obama ordered NATO troops to draw down from Afghanistan. In the years since, the country’s forces have struggled to contain the Taliban insurgency on their own while simultaneously grappling with organizational problems such as corruption, defections and a lack of leadership. The Taliban wasted no time in capitalizing on the security vacuums that resulted, and today the group claims some 40 percent of Afghan territory.

In light of the Taliban’s gains, Gen. John Nicholson, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, requested a few thousand more troops in February. The Trump administration, which has so far been willing to delegate greater authority to the Pentagon to prosecute the war, looks likely to approve the request. Yet the president must also consider the political consequences of re-engaging the United States in a distant war when much of the U.S. electorate would rather focus on domestic affairs. Consequently, the troop increase, if approved, will be a modest one.

The measure aims to turn the stalemate in the ANSF’s favor to keep it from losing the war altogether, even if it can’t win. At the same time, the Pentagon hopes that more U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan will help the ANSF inflict a high enough cost on the Taliban that negotiations become a more appealing option for insurgent leaders than continued fighting. But as history has demonstrated, troops alone will not guarantee progress toward peace. After all, the presence of more than 100,000 U.S. military personnel on the ground in Afghanistan in 2010 couldn’t persuade the Taliban to come to the negotiating table.

Internal Struggles.

In some ways, additional U.S. forces in the country could further undermine the ANSF. The Taliban use the presence of foreign troops on Afghan soil to advance the narrative that their country is under occupation and to recruit new fighters to their cause. The group has also made the withdrawal of foreign forces a precondition for participating in peace talks. Despite the dangers of staying in the country, however, NATO forces understand that withdrawing troops from Afghanistan would be riskier still. The Taliban would likely take more territory — perhaps eventually claiming enough land to effectively reconquer the country. Though the United States is open to a power-sharing agreement that includes the Taliban in the interest of ending the war, it won’t tolerate a government led by the group. After all, the last Taliban administration abetted transnational extremist organizations such as al Qaeda by hosting them on Afghan territory.

Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain, meanwhile, defies unified governance and economic development alike, posing additional challenges to the peacemaking effort. The dearth of tax revenues makes it even harder for the central government in Kabul to project power in the country’s hinterlands or, for that matter, to adequately fund its military. The country’s complex milieu of ethnic groups, meanwhile, adds to the difficulties of governing. The current National Unity Government, for example, rests on a shaky compromise between President Ashraf Ghani, a member of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtun, and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, an ethnic Tajik.

The Taliban have skillfully exploited Kabul’s limited reach by installing shadow governors in provinces across the country and establishing courts to mete out justice in accordance with Islamic law. Until the central government has addressed its shortcomings, the Taliban will continue to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan as they wage their insurgency.

Friends in High Places.

The Taliban, moreover, has a powerful ally on their side — and just across the border. Pakistan has admitted to hosting elements of the Taliban’s leadership on its territory and even nurtured the organization during its infancy, helping the group sweep across southern Afghanistan on its way to conquer Kabul in September 1996. Islamabad’s long-standing support for the Taliban reflects its own national security interests: Installing a government in Afghanistan that shares some of its priorities would enable Pakistan to guard against potential encirclement by its archrival, India.

Islamabad’s strategy derives in part from its experience with the Bengali independence movement of 1971. India intervened in the conflict that ensued to help East Pakistan achieve its independence as Bangladesh. In the process, Pakistan lost a chunk of its territory and half its population. Islamabad is determined to keep the episode from repeating in its restive western territories along the Afghan border, including Balochistan in southwest Pakistan. The province is home to a secessionist movement whose exiled leaders have sought India’s assistance in their campaign against Pakistan’s government. Cultivating a relationship with the Taliban offers Islamabad a way to keep neighboring Afghanistan from falling into India’s orbit by ensuring that it will have a say in the country’s post-war future.

Crossing the Line.

The Durand Line, the 2,430-kilometer (1,510-mile) border that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan, has historically facilitated this effort. The border, which cuts through the inhospitable terrain of the Hindu Kush mountains, is porous, enabling Islamabad to project influence into Afghanistan through its support for the Taliban. But after 15 years of war on the other side, the boundary’s permeability has become more of a liability than a selling point for Pakistan. Militant inflows into the country have aggravated Pakistan’s own internal security problems, prompting Islamabad to try to secure the border. As Islamabad clears the way for a merger between its Federally Administered Tribal Areas and neighboring Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, it is even putting up fencing along the Durand Line so that it can devote greater military attention to India.

But effective border management will require Afghanistan’s cooperation — something that Pakistan is unlikely to secure. For one thing, the ANSF is already stretched thin in its nationwide fight against the Taliban. For another, by guarding the border, Afghanistan would be recognizing the Durand Line’s legitimacy, which it has long contested. Enforcement along the boundary will remain lax, giving militants the continued leeway to launch attacks from the border regions into both countries — and further complicating efforts to end the war.

Beyond the number of soldiers deployed in Afghanistan, a complex set of factors underpins the conflict there. Even if a troop increase alters the stalemate in the Afghan government’s favor, the ANSF and the Taliban will keep hammering away at each other until one of them relents. As the Taliban reportedly once put it, the United States has “the watches and we have the time.” Trump will have to consider these factors as he decides whether to recommit his country to its longest-running war.

In Afghanistan, a Conflict With No Time Limit
is republished with permission of Stratfor.


About Stratfor

Founded in 1996, Stratfor provides strategic analysis and forecasting to individuals and organizations around the world. By placing global events in a geopolitical framework, they help customers anticipate opportunities and better understand international developments. They believe that transformative world events are not random and are, indeed, predictable. See their About Page for more information.

On the other hand: the endless war does have winners

Celebrate our mad trillion dollars in national security spending!

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Afghanistan, and especially these (these are as appropriate today as when they were written, discussing important news still unknown to most Americans.

  1. The Big Lie at work in Afghanistan, June 2009.
  2. The trinity of modern warfare at work in Afghanistan, July 2009.
  3. We are warned about Afghanistan, but choose not to listen, July 2009.
  4. How many troops would it take to win in Afghanistan? — Spoiler: lots. From July 2009.
  5. The three kinds of advocacy for the Af-Pak War, October 2009.
  6. We destroy a secular regime in Afghanistan (& its women’s rights), then we wage war on the new regime to restore women’s rights. Welcome to the American Empire., November 2009.
  7. Stratfor discusses “The 30-Year War in Afghanistan”, July 2010.
  8. Hidden history of our first step into the Afghanistan War. It’s still important for us to understand.
  9. Let’s learn what happened in Afghanistan, so we can do better in phase 2 of our Long War, December 2015.


10 thoughts on “Stratfor looks at Afghanistan and sees a Conflict With No Time Limit”

  1. Although Stratfor did their best to describe the US strategy in neutral terms, it is full of statements that make anybody with any knowledge of history cringe, for example: “empowering the Afghan National Security Forces to eventually inflict enough casualties on the Taliban to encourage them to negotiate.” Does that remind anybody else of Vietnam? The North Vietnamese did go to the negotiating table but only after they had achieved the bulk of their objectives.

    Another favorite: “The measure aims to turn the stalemate in the ANSF’s favor to keep it from losing the war altogether, even if it can’t win.” Neither winning or losing a war while continually generating casualties for long periods of time (decades?) might be the best possible way to create future terrorists. It certainly doesn’t create a stable prosperous nation, which was the original goal of the occupation.

    1. Pluto,

      I agree. Remember — Stratfor’s primary value is as a window into the thinking of the US “establishment”, our rulers. This is like the warnings given to LBJ in 1968 that the Vietnam War had lost much of its support among the great and wise.

  2. Duncan Kinder

    Re: This post in conjunction with your recent post on China’s One Belt One Road.

    OBOR has an Afghanistan dimension. In particular, it links up with Pakistan also.

    See, eg: “China, Afghanistan, Pakistan discuss OBOR” in The Hindu.

    Linking Afghanistan to China’s Belt and Road” in The Diplomat — “Linking Kabul to both the China-Pakistan Energy Corridor and OBOR could go a long way in bringing the region together.”

    Why China’s One Belt, One Road Matters for Afghanistan” in Carnegie India.

    Given this articles’ discussion of Pak-India tensions as a factor, we also should consider India’s emerging opposition to OBOR.

  3. Dear FM and all,

    If ever there was evidence of American foreign policy kabuki, it’s Afghanistan. The only Americans (and Aussies (sorry Australia, it wasn’t my idea)) in Afghanistan, should be tourists and investors, and maybe entertainers if they can fill a venue. You can’t just project a national character on people (though Tocqueville did it with some effect for the US that we’re now causing him to rotate in his grave), but we don’t actually have much to teach the Afghans much that they can’t learn on the internet or from life experience. They have lived there a long time and should be left alone to do things as they see fit. It’s amazingly diverse, and buzkashi is about the most amazing thing you can bet on.

    Thought experiment: Amis go home.

    Afghanistan will still be Afghanistan, in all of its amazing and beautiful ways. Less people die. Here in the US, people can still go to the Starbucks and plunk down however many greenbacks for a latte. We just don’t need to give as much to the Nine Lines guys as we used to, and I’m pretty sure they’d be happy with not having to do as much as they do.

    Military Industrial Congressional Complex. World’s most expensive and inefficient jobs program.

    If anyone can tell me why we need to slit another throat in Afghanistan or why we need to schlep another body home from there and give a flag to a weeping mom, I’m willing to listen, but I am highly skeptical and need some evidence.

    With kindest regards,


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  5. Taliban released a map of areas in Afghanistan that it controls. Kind of a biased source, but it’s actually pretty similar to maps on al Ajazeera, other sites. Everyone agrees on the ‘black, Taliban controlled’ — but what is more controversial is the extent of the country that’s ‘heavily contested.’

    According to this, the population of Afghanistan is 34M. 5,000 Americans among 34Million people, all that territory controlled by Taliban or contested? My concern is that there’s no sense of the scale of this thing.

    1. Cathryn,

      That is the most optimistic view of the situation! That is, it assumes there is an Afghanistan government. In fact it exists due to American money — roughly 2/3 of the budget comes from foreign sources (probably mostly from the US). It’s military operations are to a large extent run by its foreign paymasters.

      It’s a neo-colonial entity. Cut off foreign support and it wouldn’t last a year. The Taliban would again be running Afghanistan — although perhaps not with the control it exerted before the US invasion. The Af polity might be too damaged for a strong central government to emerge for a while.

  6. Our military runs on fossil fuel. Our soldiers run on surf and turf thursdays, imported ben and jerrys and coffee and gourmet salads. our hootches are fully air conditioned. Our C17s guzzle millions of gallons of fuel. I have not heard of one jingle fuel truck rolling out of Jalalabad that was ever hit……our fuelers yes…..but not a jingle truck. Word is that they pay the Taliban 4000 for safe passage to any of our bases. Every truckload has a protection fee built in. The more troops the more food and fuel and supplies and the more money the Taliban make. And to keep that money rolling in all the Taliban have to do is pay a small farmer 200 bucks to plant an IED here and there…..yes he might get killed but they risk their lives for that kind of money…..a few IEDs and we start paying protection money……The Taliban’s worst nightmare is that we pack up and leave…….The Taliban want what all Americans want……economic security……a chance to send their kid to Harvard or Yale and marry a Goldman Sachs banker……a nice house in Westchester or Santa Barbara……and they are succeeding just like the Mafia. To understand the Taliban just look at the Mafia and a little religion.

    1. Felix,

      “The Taliban want what all Americans want……economic security……a chance to send their kid to Harvard or Yale and marry a Goldman Sachs banker……a nice house in Westchester or Santa Barbara”

      Perhaps, but I’d consider that a guess until verified. Like everyone else, they want many things. I’ll bet what they want most of all is to have the infidel foreign invaders out of their nation. That would be our reaction if they invaded and occupied America.

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