Brahma Chellaney is Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow with the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
This Sunday marks the 15th anniversary of the longest war in American history that continues to rage ferociously in Afghanistan, casting a shadow over that country's future and highlighting the failure of U.S. President Barack Obama's strategy to gradually wind down the conflict. Yet the war now attracts little international attention, except when a major militant attack occurs.
The current situation in Afghanistan is worse than at any time since 2001, when the U.S. invasion helped oust the Taliban from power, forcing them to set up their command-and-control structure in neighbouring Pakistan, their creator and steadfast sponsor.
Today, the resurgent Taliban hold more Afghan territory than before, the civilian toll is at a record high and Afghan military casualties are rising to a level that American commanders warn is unsustainable. From sanctuaries in Pakistan and from the Afghan areas they hold, the militants are carrying out increasingly daring attacks, including in the capital Kabul, as illustrated by the recent strike on the American University of Afghanistan.
U.S. president George W. Bush declared war in Afghanistan in response to the world's worst terrorist attack in modern history on Sept. 11, 2001, at home. Yet before he could accomplish his war objectives in Afghanistan, Mr. Bush invaded and occupied Iraq – one of the greatest military misadventures in modern history that destabilized the Middle East and fuelled Islamist terrorism.
Mr. Obama came to office with the pledge to end the Bush-era wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Iraq, he ended the Bush war, only to start a new war in the Syria-Iraq belt.
In Afghanistan, Mr. Obama thought that he could end the war simply by declaring it over. This is what he did in December, 2014, when he famously declared that the war "is coming to a responsible conclusion." But the Afghan Taliban had little interest in peace, despite Washington allowing them to set up a de facto diplomatic mission in Qatar and then trading five senior Taliban leaders jailed at Guantanamo Bay for a captured U.S. Army sergeant.
The result is that Mr. Obama has reneged on his repeated promises to end the war. Two months ago, in a public admission of failure, he decided to leave that decision to his successor.
Why is the United States still stuck in the war? In large part, it is because it has fought the war on one side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan divide and been reluctant to go after the Pakistan-based sanctuaries of the Afghan Taliban and its affiliate, the Haqqani network.
The U.S. assassination of Afghan Taliban chief Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in May by a drone strike inside Pakistani territory was a rare exception – a one-off decapitation attack that did little to change the military realities on the ground.
Research shows that militant groups are generally resilient to the loss of a top leader, unless their cross-border sanctuaries are systematically targeted. No counterterrorism campaign has ever succeeded when the militants have enjoyed cross-border havens.
Although Mr. Obama hailed the Mansour killing as "an important milestone," the decapitation cast an unflattering light on U.S. policy: America took nearly 15 years to carry out its first – and thus far only – drone strike in Pakistan's sprawling Balochistan province, the seat of the Afghan Taliban's command-and-control structure. This has allowed the Afghan Taliban leadership to stay ensconced in Balochistan.
Tellingly, the United States has not designated the Afghan Taliban as a terrorist organization. The Obama White House has engaged in semantic jugglery to explain why the group is missing from the U.S. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
In truth, the Obama administration is willing, as part of a peace deal, to accommodate the medieval Taliban in a power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan. It assassinated the Taliban leader because he defiantly refused to revive long-paralyzed peace negotiations.
For almost eight years, Mr. Obama has pursued the same unsuccessful Afghanistan-related strategy, changing just the tactics. His strategy essentially has sought to use inducements to prod the Pakistani military and its rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency to go after the Haqqani network and get the Afghan Taliban to agree to a peace deal. The inducements have ranged from billions of dollars in military aid to the supply of lethal weapons.
However, the carrots-without-sticks approach has only encouraged the Pakistani military to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.
Barack Obama's successor will have to make some difficult choices on Afghanistan. To do so, she or he will have to face up to a stark truth: The war in Afghanistan can only be won in Pakistan. With the Afghan government's hold on many districts looking increasingly tenuous, the next president, however, will not have the time like President Obama to experiment.