October 2, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 744

The Failing U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan

October 2, 2011 | By Yigal Carmon and Tufail Ahmad*
Pakistan, Afghanistan | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 744


The U.S.'s Afghan strategy is based on two factors: firstly, military victory on the ground, or at least major military gains in areas under Taliban control; and secondly, a policy of engaging the militants by encouraging the Karzai government's reconciliatory efforts to the Taliban and by holding direct U.S.-Taliban talks.

Reflecting this strategy, a series of American media reports over the past year created a public impression that the U.S. is making gradual progress in negotiations with the Taliban. The U.S. media reports regularly quoted unidentified officials in the government and intelligence establishment to buttress claims of progress. It was expected that these secret talks, along with the military gains in southern Afghanistan, would stabilize the country and propel the withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2014.

Contrary to the claims made in the U.S. media, there are question marks on both the military and political fronts.

First, the military gains in southern Afghanistan are minor, and it is unclear whether the U.S. troops can secure such areas for long where some progress against the Taliban has been seen. On their part, the Taliban – supported by the Pakistani military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) – are escalating the war by mounting successful attacks in heavily secured areas of Kabul and other cities.

Second, there have been no negotiations with the Taliban on the future of Afghanistan. The U.S. media reports of secret talks on the future of Afghanistan were never true. In fact, it can be argued that the U.S. media, while claiming progress in negotiations with the Taliban, chose to completely ignore a series of statements issued by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban's shadow government in the country.

This analysis examines how the increasing Taliban attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan's own military attacks on Afghanistan's border provinces, as well as the U.S.'s own intelligence assessment, indicate that the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is failing.

I. Negotiations with the Taliban

Taliban Deny Talks with the Afghan Government

Media reports about secret peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban gained currency sometime in 2010. The Hizb-e-Islami, the second largest militant group in Afghanistan led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is the only militant group that has held open talks with the Karzai government. As for the Taliban, the Islamic Emirate published numerous statements over the past year, denying peace negotiations with the Afghan government.

In October 2010, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, confirmed that the Western troops had allowed Taliban leaders into Kabul in order to talk with the government. Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute in London, Gen. Petraeus said that "several very senior" Taliban leaders have reached out to the Afghan government, adding: "Indeed, in certain respects we do facilitate that, given that, needless to say, it would not be the easiest of tasks for a senior Taliban commander to enter Afghanistan and make his way to Kabul."[1]

The NATO troops definitely airlifted an alleged Taliban commander from the Pakistani city of Quetta to Kabul so that he could hold talks with Hamid Karzai at the Presidential Palace in the Afghan capital. However, it turned out that the Taliban commander was an imposter, possibly someone planted by the Pakistani military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the main backer of the Islamic Emirate.

According to a November 28, 2010 report in the Dari-language newspaper Roznama Arman-e-Milli, the Taliban imposter who introduced himself as Taliban commander Mullah Mansoor and held the talks with Karzai at the Presidential Palace in Kabul was an ordinary Quetta shopkeeper.[2] Facilitated by NATO troops, he spoke with President Hamid Karzai and foreign forces officials and received hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars, according to a senior Afghan government official.[3]

In February 2011, an article published on an official Islamic Emirate website rejected media reports about the Afghan government's peace talks with the Taliban, calling the reports false rumors. The article, titled "The Fifth Column Embraced in Sinful America's Lap, Spreading the Lying Buzz of Negotiations," commented on the rumors of talks with the Karzai government:[4] "For months we have been hearing the startling and stunning buzz of negotiations, reports of which have been seen increasingly spreading in an urgent and polished style by the ignorant Western news agencies, glossed with a hue of truth and veracity.

"This buzz has been repeated and spread until it was said: A high-ranking delegation from the Islamic Emirate met with officials of the lackey, mercenary government at the Serena Hotel here in the Afghan capital Kabul. This was corroborated from the mouth of the snake-charmer president [Hamid Karzai] of this government...

"We must not wonder at these biased reports and fabricated deceptions on the part of the enemy. Such contrivances are nothing but the practice of Americans and Westerners and the habit of the hypocrites and mercenaries...

"It is logically impossible for negotiations to be conducted with the lackey government and the fifth column so long as it is embraced in the lap of wicked America and while American flags are... [flying] above the peaks of this Muslim land..."

On March 21, 2011, Zabihullah Mujahid, the main spokesman of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, issued a statement, rejecting a claim by so-called Taliban commander Abdul Khaliq Malekzai that 12,000 Taliban fighters want to join the peace process. The statement noted:[5]

"A person calling himself Abdul Khaliq Malekzai had an audio interview with some media outlets, claiming that he was an envoy of the Taliban and wanted to reach reconciliation with the so-called Kabul Administration. He said that he was already engaged in talks (with the stooge administration). He also claimed that there are 12,000 Taliban who agree with his program and talks are continuing with 6,000 more Taliban to persuade them to join the reconciliation process with the State.

"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as before, strongly refutes these baseless and fatuous claims and considers them as failed endeavors on the part of the enemy in a series of its psychological warfare. No member of the Islamic Emirate, whether a high-ranking or low-ranking mujahid, has ever contacted any side for talks, directly or indirectly..."

Taliban Denies Secret Negotiations with the U.S.

Over the past year, various Islamic Emirate websites have regularly published numerous statements denying the U.S. media reports regarding the secret negotiations, and describing them as rumors, deception and Western propaganda.

On May 28, 2011, the Islamic Emirate issued a statement, titled "Negotiation or Ploys, What is It?" and noting:[6] "If empty words and hypes were ever to yield results as Washington and Kabul are trying to prove, then by now, the Islamic Emirate and the occupation forces would have reached a tangible outcome. However, when actions are opposite to words, then it becomes merely a deception game. The same is the case concerning the negotiation the White House has been harping on so much...

"These days, we hear about two hot topics: the negotiations between the Islamic Emirate and the U.S., and the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. But unfortunately America wants to pave the way for the elimination of the current armed jihad and resistance under the name of negotiation, and further ensconce themselves in Afghanistan under the pretext of a drawdown..."

On July 6, 2011, the Islamic Emirate issued another statement rejecting Western media reports of U.S.-Taliban talks as baseless rumors, stating:[7] "It has become routine in the past few years that, at the start and end of every month, some baseless and dubious news reports appear in some Western media outlets, quoting unknown circles and shadowy Western rulers [and stating] that negotiations are underway with the Islamic Emirate. They say we have put pressure on the Taliban to come to talks.

"But when the Islamic Emirate categorically rejects these rumors and they are debunked and exposed, then another wave appears in media to confuse the minds, claiming that negotiation and contacts with certain figures of the leadership of the Islamic Emirate are in full swing. But when these same figures clarify their positions and refute the allegations, then the game of the nominal negotiation rear up with new names and forms after a lull and humiliation. Thus... [the rumors are] kept boiling.

"Every wise man knows that there is no one in the ranks and leadership of the Islamic Emirate that would ever have doubts about the policy of the Islamic Emirate and would follow another distinctive stand of his own..."

Taliban Acknowledge "Contacts" with the U.S. On Prisoner Exchange – But Not On the Future of Afghanistan

Over the past year, the Islamic Emirate issued only two known statements that confirmed some kind of "contacts" with the U.S. officials.

On July 6, 2011 the Taliban acknowledged "direct" and "indirect" contacts with U.S. and Canadian officials regarding the exchange of prisoners. However, the July 6, 2011 statement titled "Statement of the Islamic Emirate Regarding the Baseless Rumors of Negotiation" clarified:[8] "The Islamic Emirate has had talks with some countries whose nationals are in the captivity of mujahideen in order to reach an exchange of prisoners and determine the prisoners' destiny. An example of such talks can be quoted, i.e. the successful negotiation of 21 Koreans in 2007 who were prisoners with the Islamic Emirate.

"Similarly, talks have taken place frequently... [regarding the release of] the French nationals who were prisoners with the mujahideen. Their two prisoners have been released recently as a result of exchange when the... [French/NATO] side agreed to accept conditions of the Islamic Emirate. Furthermore, direct and indirect contacts continue about Canadian and American prisoners who are in our captivity as well as about other nationals who have come to our country for occupation and were/are under our detention..."

It should be noted here that Bowe Robert Bergdahl, an American soldier, has been in the Taliban's captivity since mid-2009.

On the eve of Eid-ul-Fitr this year, which marked the end of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan on August 30 and 31, Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Emir of all jihadist groups worldwide and head of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, issued a statement reiterating the Taliban's position that the contacts made with the U.S. officials regarding prisoner release should not be considered negotiations for the future of Afghanistan.

Mullah Omar's Eid-ul-Fitr message, however, rejected media reports about peace talks with the U.S., noting:[9] "The contacts which have been made with some parties for the release of prisoners can't be called a comprehensive negotiation for the solution of the country's current imbroglio. However, the Islamic Emirate, as an efficient political and military entity, has a specific and independent agenda in this regard which has been elucidated time and again...

"[The Bonn Conference in December 2011] will not be different from the conference held 10 years ago, because neither true representatives of the Afghan people have participation in it, nor is attention paid to a comprehensive and real solution of the problems of Afghanistan. Like the previous conferences and jirgas [meetings of elders], this conference is superficial.... They want to distract the attention of the public of the world from the real solution of the Afghan issue for some time..."

The Reality of the Direct U.S.-Taliban Negotiations

In mid-2011, it emerged that the secret U.S.-Taliban contacts involved Tayeb Agha, a former aide of Taliban leader Mullah Omar based in Pakistan. It appears that Tayeb Agha has been barred from returning to Pakistan, possibly by the Pakistani military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which is opposed to any U.S. or Afghan peace negotiations with the Taliban without the mediation of ISI.

According to an August 29, 2011 Associated Press report published on the website of The Washington Post, the U.S. held secret talks with Tayeb Agha for "at least three times" and the Karzai government, which like the ISI is opposed to any U.S. peace talks with the Taliban that are not mediated by it, "intentionally leaked details of the clandestine meetings, scuttling the talks."[10] The talks, held from late 2010 onwards, with Tayeb Agha took place in Qatar and Germany, where Agha is currently in hiding, unable to return to Pakistan.[11]

The U.S. contacts with Tayeb Agha are perhaps the only direct U.S.-Taliban contacts. While the Taliban have said that they are aimed at prisoner exchange, the U.S. media reports have presented them as signs of progress in negotiations on the future of Afghanistan.

However, it would be fair to say that during such contacts U.S. officials might have raised the issue of a possible pathway to an elusive breakthrough, with the Taliban demanding release of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay detention center and the U.S. being willing to allow the Taliban to open a political office in Qatar.[12]

II. Ground Realities – Taliban Attacks, Pakistani Military Invasion of Afghanistan

Taliban Attacks on Afghan Presidential Palace, British Cultural Center, U.S. Embassy, CIA Compound, NATO Headquarters

Sensing that the withdrawal of U.S. troops could provide them an opportunity to capture power in Kabul, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the ISI-backed Taliban militants have stepped up their military campaign inside Afghanistan, as reflected in growing attacks on strategic centers in Kabul and other cities.

Over the past two years, the Taliban have regularly carried out successful operations and attacks in various parts of Afghanistan, including a January 18, 2010 attack aimed at a swearing-in ceremony of Afghan ministers at the Presidential Palace in Kabul; the escape of 480 Taliban prisoners from the Kandahar prison in April 2010; an attack in the Defense Ministry building in Kabul in April 2011; an attack on Intercontinental Hotel of Kabul in June 2011; and numerous attacks and bomb blasts in various districts of Afghanistan. The following are details of some of the major attacks:

In early 2011, the Taliban – which cannot survive without ISI's support – began a policy of assassination attacks and bomb blasts aimed at killing police chiefs and district governors in Afghanistan.[13]

On July 12, 2011, Ahmad Wali Karzai, head of the Kandahar provincial council and brother of President Hamid Karzai, was assassinated by his guard.

On July 14, as officials gathered for a meeting to pay homage to Ahmad Wali Karzai at a mosque in Kandahar, a Taliban suicide bomber killed Mawlawi Hekmatullah Hekmat, head of the Kandahar Ulema Council.

On July 17, Afghan lawmaker from Uruzgan province Hashim Watanwal and Jan Mohammad Khan, a senior aide to Karzai, were killed when Taliban bombers stormed Khan's house in Kabul.

On July 27, a Taliban suicide bomber killed Ghulam Haider Hamidi, the mayor of Kandahar.

On August 4, Payenda Mohammad, Afghan intelligence chief for District Five of Kunduz city, was killed by the Taliban.

Over the past year, top police and district chiefs killed by the Taliban include: Sirajuddin, police chief of the district of Obe in the Herat province; Ghulam Rasool, police chief of the district of Daman in the Kandahar province; Noor Ahmad Nazari, deputy mayor of Kandahar; Ata Jan Kajarwal, border and tribal affairs chief of the Zabul province; Daud Esaqzai, police chief of Gosfandi district of the Sar-e-Pul province; Haji Habibullah, former head of the district of Maroof in Kandahar province; General Daud Daud, police chief of northern Afghanistan; and others.

On August 19, 2011, the Taliban mounted a major attack on a British cultural center in Kabul. According to a Taliban website, the attack was carried out by a Taliban suicide bomber Abdurrahman who drove a vehicle packed with 1,000-kilogram explosives, killing all security guards at the gate of the building.[14]

On September 13, 2011, the Taliban suicide bombers stormed the heavily fortified diplomatic district in Kabul, resulting in a 20-hour fighting that lasted into the next day.[15] During the 20-hour gunbattle, which involved nine Taliban militants, the Taliban fired rockets and hand grenades on the U.S. Embassy, NATO headquarters and several other police stations in the Afghan capital.

Two days before the attack, the Taliban also carried out a major attack on a U.S. base in Maidan-Wardak province. On September 10, a Taliban bomber targeted an American military base in the Sayed Abad district of the province by detonating 10,000-kilogram explosives packed in a vehicle, according to a Taliban website.[16] On September 26, 2011, an Afghan security guard, probably working for the Taliban, opened fire in the CIA compound in Kabul, killing a CIA worker and raising question mark on the security of vital U.S. centers in Afghanistan.[17]

These are some of the major attacks mounted by the Taliban in Kabul and some key areas. The summer of 2011 has appeared to be a season of psychological victory for the Taliban and the tantalizing prospect of a military conquest of Afghanistan by the ISI and the Taliban – which are working together and independently. The July 12 assassination of Ahmad Wali Karzai, head of the Kandahar provincial council, also stresses the point that the Taliban are on the rampage in southern Afghanistan where the U.S. claims to have made military gains.

The Pakistani Military Invasion of Afghanistan

Separately from the Taliban, Pakistan too launched a series of military attacks on Afghanistan this year.[18]

In February 2011, Pakistani planes also bombarded Afghan Border Police posts and civilians' homes in Afghanistan's Nangarhar and Khost provinces. According to the website, the Pakistani attacks were timed to convey a warning to President Karzai against visiting India that month.[19]

In June 2011, Pakistan launched a series of missile and artillery attacks on the Afghan provinces of Kunar, Nangarhar, Khost and Paktia, killing dozens of civilians which were described by the Afghan government in a resolution as an "act of invasion" by Pakistan.[20] On June 26, 2011, Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused Pakistan of firing 470 missiles into the eastern Afghan provinces.[21]

In a July 2, 2011 testimony before the parliament, Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak confirmed that two Pakistani helicopters entered the Afghan territory sometime in the summer of 2011.[22] On July 5, 2011, Afghan border police commander Aminullah Amarkhel reported that hundreds of fighters from the Pakistani Taliban crossed the border into Afghanistan's Nuristan province, where they attacked police outposts and torched homes.[23]

In August 2011, General Aminullah Amarkhel, expressed concern that Pakistani forces have established 16 checkpoints inside the territory of Afghanistan, violating the border with Pakistan. General Amarkhel noted that there have been 50 incidents of border violation by the Pakistani forces on the eastern borders of Afghanistan with Pakistan, and that Pakistan has established 16 security checkposts inside Afghanistan's territory; 31 Pakistani security checkposts on the border with eastern Afghanistan were also seen as a threat to Afghanistan.[24]

It also emerged that Pakistan has established control on some areas inside Afghanistan and offered citizenship to the local tribes. General Amarkhel made startling revelations that Pakistan has offered citizenship to the Afghan tribes, noting that there is proof that Pakistan provided Pakistani citizenship cards to Afghans in the eastern border towns, particularly in Kunar and Nuristan provinces.[25]

In September 2011, Pakistan fired hundreds of rockets into eastern Afghan province of Kunar, forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes.[26] Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Sidiq Sidiqi said: "We call on Pakistan [regarding] whoever is behind the attacks, to prevent them immediately."[27]

On September 26, 2011, the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Pakistani Ambassador to Kabul, Mohammad Sadiq, and told him to ask his government to immediately stop the shelling, a report by Pajhwok News Service said, noting that he Pakistani Army fired more than 340 rockets into Kunar and Nuristan provinces, causing loss of life and property and displacing hundreds of families.[28]

III. Can There Be Negotiations?

Assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani Facilitated by Reconciliation Efforts

In August 2011, High Peace Council (HPC) chief and former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani spoke publicly about Pakistan's support for the Taliban in the systematic assassination of influential Afghan officials. Without naming Pakistan's ISI, Rabbani said that "foreign intelligence agencies" are behind them, adding that "the assassination of high-profile Afghan figures is part of a plot sketched out by foreign intelligence organizations to misuse the name of the Taliban and to defame Islam."[29]

On September 20, 2011, Rabbani was assassinated at his home in Kabul. As HPC chief, Rabbani had steered the Karzai government's policy of reconciliation efforts with the Taliban and other militant organizations. The assassin, who hid a bomb in his turban, arrived in Kabul to meet with Rabbani with the promise of breakthrough peace proposals from the Taliban leadership based in Pakistan. These reconciliation efforts of the Karzai government are separate of the U.S.-Taliban talks.

The key point about this assassination is that a Taliban commander, who joined the Karzai government as part of the reconciliation efforts, facilitated the Taliban assassin into Rabbani's home. A report in The Washington Post that quoted Rabbani's friend Bashir Bezhan noted: "The attack on Rabbani appears to have succeeded because a trusted former senior Taliban official who reconciled with President Hamid Karzai in 2005 facilitated the meeting [between Rabbani and his assassin]."[30] HPC member Rahmatullah Wahidyar, a former deputy minister in the Taliban government of the late 1990s, and another HPC member, Mohammad Stanekzai, had escorted the assassin to the home of Rabbani, who was called back from Dubai for the singular purpose of this supposedly breakthrough meeting.

Rabbani's assassination highlights the fact that the Taliban are infiltrating into the top tiers of the Afghan government departments through the mechanism of reconciliation process. Also, over the past years, the Taliban – and, in fact, all major jihadist groups – have rejected the policy of talks in principle with the West, which they dismiss as infidels.

In the case of Afghanistan, the Taliban have decided not to hold talks, not even as a tactical strategy. After Rabbani's assassination a top U.S. military official clearly stated, for the first time perhaps, that the Taliban are not interested in peace negotiations, i.e. a point reiterated numerous times by the Taliban in their publications. General John Allen, the U.S. Commander of international troops in Afghanistan, commented on Rabbani's assassination: "This is another indicator that, regardless of what Taliban leadership outside the country say, they do not want peace, but rather war."[31]


The CIA's July 2011 Assessment of Afghanistan Is At Odds with U.S. Government, Military Officials

According to a report in The Washington Post, the July 2011 "District Assessment on Afghanistan," a district-by-district assessment of ground realities in Afghanistan, concluded that the country is heading towards a "stalemate" between the Taliban and the U.S./NATO troops.[32] Columnist David Ignatius of The Washington Post quoted a U.S. military official familiar with the CIA assessment as saying that the CIA analysis is "pretty harsh" in its assessment of the ground situation.[33]

Ignatius observed: "Even in areas where the United States has surged troops over the past 18 months to clear insurgents, the CIA analysts weren't optimistic that the Taliban's momentum had been reversed, as President Obama and his military commanders have argued... The [CIA] analysts' skepticism about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, which has been deepening over the past several years, presents challenges for [David] Petraeus and the White House."[34]

Wondering if the CIA assessment was "a preemptive strike by the agency" against the incoming CIA chief Gen. David Petraeus or "a harbinger of impending change in White House policy" on Afghanistan, Ignatius gave his own judgment on the CIA analysis, stating: "From my reporting, neither seems to be true. The [CIA] analysts have long been skeptical on Afghanistan..."[35]

The columnist warned: "As with so many aspects of Afghanistan, there are echoes here of Vietnam – where CIA analysts were early and emphatic in their warnings that U.S. strategy wouldn't succeed, but were countered by generals who insisted the United States could prevail with sufficient military power."[36]

* Tufail Ahmad is Director of MEMRI's South Asia Studies Project (; Y. Carmon is President of MEMRI.


[1] Voice of America (, October 15, 2010.

[2] Roznama Arman-e-Milli (Afghanistan), November 28, 2010.

[3] Roznama Arman-e-Milli (Afghanistan), November 28, 2010.

[4] Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (, February 26, 2011.

[5] Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (, March 21, 2011.

[6] Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (, May 28, 2011.

[7] Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (, July 6, 2011.

[8] Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (, July 6, 2011.

[9] Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (, August 29, 2011.

[10] (U.S.), August 29, 2011.

[11] (U.S.), August 29, 2011.

[12] (Afghanistan), September 13, 2011.

[13] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 731, "Two Clashing Scenarios for Afghanistan Following the U.S. and Coalition Withdrawal in 2014, and Beyond That to 2024," August 30, 2011, Two Clashing Scenarios for Afghanistan Following the U.S. and Coalition Withdrawal in 2014, and Beyond That to 2024

[14] (Afghanistan), August 19, 2011.

[15] (Afghanistan), September 14, 2011.

[16] (Afghanistan), September 14, 2011.

[17] (Afghanistan), September 26, 2011.

[18] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 703, "Pakistan Launching Military Intervention to Subjugate Afghanistan,", July 6, 2011, Pakistan Launching Military Intervention to Subjugate Afghanistan

[19] (Afghanistan), February 4, 2011.

[20] Roznama Husht-e-Subh (Afghanistan), July 5, 2011.

[21] (Pakistan), June 26, 2011.

[22] (Afghanistan), July 2, 2011.

[23] (Afghanistan), July 5, 2011.

[24] Roznama Arman-e-Milli (Afghanistan), August 2, 2011.

[25] Roznama Arman-e-Milli (Afghanistan), August 2, 2011.

[26] (Afghanistan), September 25, 2011.

[27] (Afghanistan), September 25, 2011.

[28] (Afghanistan), September 26, 2011.

[29] (Afghanistan), August 7, 2011.

[30] The Washington Post (U.S.), September 21, 2011.

[31] The Washington Post (U.S.), September 21, 2011.

[32] (U.S.), September 1, 2011.

[33] (U.S.), September 1, 2011.

[34] (U.S.), September 1, 2011.

[35] (U.S.), September 1, 2011.

[36] (U.S.), September 1, 2011.

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