The Taliban ‘waiting game’ in Afghanistan, mapped by media since 2009

 Sgt. Adam Letnom, 28, of New Jersey has been deployed to Afghanistan four times. He says he is pessimistic about the future of the country as U.S. troops draw down. “I don't think there was ever a strong hope for change in Afghanistan,” he said. Ernesto Londoño/The Washington Post
Sgt. Adam Letnom, 28, of New Jersey has been deployed to Afghanistan four times. He says he is pessimistic about the future of the country as U.S. troops draw down. “I don’t think there was ever a strong hope for change in Afghanistan,” he said. Ernesto Londoño/The Washington Post

The Washington Post published a strong story Tuesday out of Afghanistan, where my colleague Ernesto Londoño recently spent time with paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division. The unit he embedded with has been assigned to drop into contested areas to see how Afghan troops are holding up against insurgent groups as the U.S. pulls thousands of troops of Afghanistan this summer.

The story hits on a central theme: The Taliban’s perceived waiting game.

“If I was an insurgent, I would wait until the Americans left and try my luck with the ANSF,” Capt. Michael Wallace told Londoño, using the acronym common for the Afghan National Security Forces. “When we’re with them, they can make us have bad days, but they’re never going to win.”

American troops have long questioned whether the Taliban is planning, or able, to launch a massive offensive against Afghan troops once the coalition has pulled almost entirely out of the country. Even Gen. Joseph Dunford, the outgoing top commander in Afghanistan, expressed some uneasiness this month about the speed with which U.S. Special Operations troops will be pulled out of the war zone in coming years.

That the Taliban is waiting for U.S. troops to withdraw is a long-held narrative of the Afghanistan War. It has especially been the case since late 2009, when President Obama announced a surge of tens of thousands of U.S. troops, while at the same time setting a timetable to begin withdrawing forces. 

Consider this an attempt to illustrate the varying ways it has come up, drawing on media reports over the last five years that hit the “waiting” theme:

“Washington’s hint of an Afghanistan endgame in saying U.S. troops won’t still be there in 2017 might help win over a war-weary public, but there is no guarantee a notoriously patient Taliban won’t just wait the Americans out.”

That’s the lede of an analytical piece published by Reuters shortly after Obama’s surge announcement in December 2009. The announcement had been less than 24 hours earlier, but there already was significant concern that setting a timetable was going to be an issue.

“Will the Taliban hard-liners, now scenting victory, even agree to talks and, as a consequence, be prepared to dump al-Qaeda? Or will they sit out the next eighteen months waiting for the Americans to begin to leave?

Those questions were raised in February 2010 in the New York Review of Books, ahead of a bloody summer in which U.S. troops pressed into numerous areas across southern and eastern Afghanistan and engaged in fierce fighting with Taliban insurgents. The author, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, said then that the following few months was the best time for the United States to make it clear that it was best for the Taliban to negotiate a political settlement.

“If you tell the enemy that you’re leaving on a date certain, unequivocally, then that enemy will wait until you leave.”

Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) said this in July 2010 in an interview with Jake Tapper, then with ABC News and “This Week.” The senator criticized Obama strongly for not saying definitively that the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan would be conditions based.

“They cannot wait us out. They cannot defeat us. And they cannot escape this choice.”

Those are the words of Hillary Clinton in February 2011, when she was secretary of state. They came at the Asia Society in New York, according to CNN, as she reaffirmed Obama’s plan to begin pulling troops from Afghanistan by July.

“What this does is demonstrate to many of us that the Taliban are just waiting to come back, and I don’t think that can be dispensed with.”

That’s the reaction of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), speaking on Fox News Sunday on May 13, 2012. Her comments came after a trip to Afghanistan in which she met with Karzai and a variety of other officials, including female parliamentarians of whom she said she was very proud. Feinstein said she had concerns about Taliban “shadow governors” and the militant group’s ability to tax poppy in the southern part of the country.

“This sends a very clear message to the Taliban: You cannot wait this out until foreign forces leave in 2014 because we will be firm friends and supporters long beyond that.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron said this, according to a July 19, 2012, report in the Daily Mail newspaper. He promised that the British would keep a presence in Afghanistan after its combat operations there ended. The story closes by noting that British military officers in Afghanistan argued they should maintain a strong presence in Afghanistan, and had “grave misgivings about the readiness of the Afghan military.

“Even as Afghanistan’s unfolding presidential election has captured the capital’s attention, two related questions have become increasingly urgent among security officials here: Where have the Taliban gone, and what are they waiting for?”

That’s the lede of an April 18 story in The New York Times assessing possible security threats to the election process in Afghanistan. The report notes that the Taliban launched a series of brutal attacks this spring, but that violence was mostly quiet on the April 5 election day. Analysts suggested that understanding the Taliban’s intentions remained critical.

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What does all this mean? Politicians, analysts and others for and against pulling U.S. troops from Afghanistan have hit this issue repeatedly, but it remains to be seen how strong the Taliban is, and how effective they can be in mounting a new offensive after there is only a small number of coalition troops in Afghanistan.

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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Dan Lamothe · July 30