I’m not as sanguine as Max Boot that the Taliban’s well-coordinated attacks are really a sign of weakness. During my first trip to Afghanistan in 1997, I visited the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The frontline with the Taliban was hundreds of miles away. The next day, we were fleeing for our lives as the Taliban advanced on Mazar-i-Sharif. The reason for the Taliban’s rapid advance was not the group’s military prowess, but rather a quirk of Afghan culture: Afghans never lose a war; they just defect to the winning side. A neighboring warlord had decided to make accommodation with the Taliban, offering them free passage. A few hours after I left, the city fell.
It is against this context that the attack on Kabul worries me greatly. The problem isn’t simply a Taliban “Hail Mary” pass into the end zone but rather the Obama administration symbolically standing down the defense with his repeated offers to negotiate with the radical Islamist group.
Pushing diplomacy with the Taliban—a strategy tried by the Clinton administration with disastrous results—has enabled the Taliban to cast the West as weak and desperate. Adding a timeline into the mix only underlined the perception of desperation. That diplomatic concessions has emboldened the Taliban is an observation lost on no one but the White House and the good folks in Foggy Bottom.
Allowing the Taliban to open an office in Qatar not only restored diplomatic legitimacy to the group, but also enabled it to raise cash. Indeed, according to SITE Monitoring, the Taliban in recent days has been putting out calls for donations. It is a lot easier to donate in Qatar than in Afghanistan itself.
In a head-to-head patch up, the Taliban may be weak. But war is as much psychological as military. And the Taliban increasingly seems to be winning that battle hands-down. Unless Obama—like Bush prior to the surge in Iraq—is willing to commit himself unequivocally to victory, Afghans will see the Taliban’s actions as at best a dry run and, at worst, a sign that the time is now to bet if not on the strong horse, than on the only horse with resolve.