A Glimmer of Hope for Afghanistan

The thin green line.

Photographer: NASIR WAQIF/AFP/Getty Images

If there's any good news about Kunduz, the city in northern Afghanistan that has been the scene of a fierce battle this week, it's this: The Taliban is consolidating under new leadership, which may enable a resumption of the peace talks that are the country's only real hope for ending decades of conflict.

Kunduz, a critical transport hub, is the first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban since 2001. The Taliban routed a much larger Afghan security force. Although the government is fighting to reestablish control, the Taliban's success -- even if temporary -- will strengthen Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who took over the Taliban after Mullah Omar's death was announced in July.

To be clear: The fall of Kunduz also shows the incompetence of Kunduz's government, which is divided by the same factionalism and ethnic tensions that roil the country's unity government. Tensions between Kunduz officials loyal to President Ashraf Ghani and those beholden to Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan's chief executive officer, prevented them from dealing effectively with the Taliban's steady encroachment on Kunduz over the last year.

Leaving Afghanistan

The disarray in Kunduz may help the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell, make his case for suspending a planned drawdown of U.S. troops -- but it should also prompt a few questions when he testifies before Congress next week. After more than $65 billion in U.S. military aid over more than a decade, is this the best that Afghan security forces can do? Will they ever be able to stand on their own against the Taliban? And at a price that Afghanistan's impoverished government can afford?

Despite President Barack Obama's declaration in December 2014 that U.S. combat operations had ended, the presence of U.S. Special Forces in Kunduz is a reminder that U.S. troops now operate in a gray area between fighting and advising. The administration has overplayed successes and downplayed difficulties, and the broader reconstruction effort remains marred by corruption and mismanagement on both the U.S. and Afghan sides.

The fact is, the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan will never be won at a political and economic price that the U.S. is willing to pay. And the primary goal of safeguarding the U.S. and its allies from a terrorist attack hatched on Afghan soil can be achieved at a much lower cost. The key is achieving a political settlement with the Taliban. Mansour appears willing to resume negotiations (talks were suspended this summer after the announcement of Omar's death), and has called for the establishment of an “inclusive government.”

The U.S. and its allies need to extinguish any hopes that the Taliban may now entertain about an outright military victory, and help Ghani and Abdullah negotiate from a position of greater strength. That means maintaining U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan beyond 2016, and better supporting Afghan forces on the ground and in the air. Obama should also insist that Pakistan do more: It has some leverage with Mansour, who was the Taliban's minister of aviation during the 1990s and is no stranger to Pakistan's intelligence service.

A unified enemy is not generally preferable to a diffuse one, and the failures of the Afghanistan government -- in Kunduz and elsewhere -- are all too real. At the same time, the simple truth is that the very factors that now make the Taliban harder to fight may also make it easier to negotiate with. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.