US soldiers in Afghanistan
US army soldiers walk as a NATO helicopter flies overhead at coalition force Forward Operating Base (FOB) Connelly in the Khogyani district in the eastern province of Nangarhar (File) Image Credit: AFP

Willie Sutton (Slick Willie) was an early 20th century Brooklyn-born, Irish American villain who was the product of the Roaring Twenties, a decade of economic prosperity, carefree living and women’s suffrage that ended in 1929 with the stock market crash and the advent of the Great Depression.

Sutton did a lot of things in his long career of chicanery, most notably as a bank robber, before he died in 1980 at the advanced age of 79, after having spent close to 40 years in and out of Federal prisons.

We invoke this colourful character here because of the oft-quoted aphorism he nonchalantly proffered to a reporter who at one time asked him why he robbed banks. Sutton responded simply: “Because that’s where the money is”. That pithy rejoinder went on to become known as the Sutton Rule, which states that when wading through a problem, or facing a challenge, one should first consider the obvious, as, say, contained in the adage, “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras”

Advantage Taliban

That comes to mind when we ask why the Taliban — their consent to join the US at critical peace talks in Istanbul later this month notwithstanding — they have continued to pursue their cause at the battle field rather than the negotiating table. The answer? That’s where victory is.

The facts on the ground are evident: while their enemy has become war-weary and fatigued, they have remained untroubled and heedless of the terrors of combat. That is the way that Afghans, ever since antiquity, have lived their lives in Afghanistan, a land that should be known not so much as “the graveyard of empires — since no empires actually perished while waging war there — but as the battleground of empires humbled by their experience as intruders on that country’s native peoples.

Announcements issued of late by the Taliban that they have already won the war, hands down, are not all bluster. Over the last two or three years, and certainly over the last two or three months, Taliban militants were able to overrun government military bases, take control of large swaths of the countryside, encroach on cities, inflict “not sustainable” casualties — numbering in the thousands — on government forces and humiliate special CIA-trained military units — units reportedly known for heavy-handedness by ordinary Afghans.

American settlement plan

In short, the Taliban now have the advantage. And that makes them unlikely to concede, during the Istanbul talks, to a settlement centred on power-sharing with the Kabul government, a settlement pushed by the US but feared by the Kabul government, not without reason, as a Taliban Trojan Horse.

Because by any measures, the Taliban are in a stronger military position now than at any time at the outset of the conflict in 2001, with a dominant place in the balance of power, it strains credulity to imagine that they could be cajoled, let alone coerced, into rethinking the goals, not to mention the dogma, that have defined their struggle over the last two decades.

The Taliban, you see, can bide their time. The US cannot.

Parleys in Turkey

In their view, having outlasted the mighty military machine of the United State after twenty years of locking horns with it, well, the game is now over, with the bleachers empty. Talks in Istanbul will not be hard.

In a front page news report in the New York Times last week, tellingly titled “The Taliban think they have won, peace deal or not”, Adam Nossiter, filing from Kabul, quoted the Taliban’s deputy leader, Sirajudin Haqqani as boasting, “[No one] ever thought that one day we would ... crush the arrogance of the emperors and force them to admit their defeat at our hands”.

Bombast? Yes, but not of the kind anchored in hot air. The Taliban truly believe that they have won the war. “That belief, grounded in military and political reality, is shaping Afghanistan’s volatile present”, Nossiter continued. “On the eve of talks in Turkey [in April] over the country’s future, it is the elephant in the room: the half-acknowledged truth that the Taliban have the upper hand and thus are showing little outward interest in compromise or going along with the dominant American idea, power-sharing”.

Two long decades after the US went to war in Afghanistan, at great cost to it in blood and treasure (22,000 casualties, including around 2,400 fatalities, and approximately $143 billion for reconstruction and security forces), it finds itself back to square one — with the Taliban ascendant.

A fine mess all around for decision makers to ponder in Washington, the most self-important city — and capital putatively of the most indispensable nation — in the world, who might, in their next overseas military venture, think horses not zebras when they hear hoofbeats, that is, think the forbidding nation of Afghanistan in 2001 not the Caribbean micronation of Grenada in 1983. Slick Willie had it right.

Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile