Afghanistan: What now?
Sept. 12, 2019
President Donald Trump ’s cancellation of peace talks in Afghanistan swept Washington, D.C., Kabul and Doha like an earthquake. While much of the coverage focused on Trump’s decision to invite senior Taliban officials to the presidential retreat at Camp David, the more important story is the fact that a 10-month old diplomatic process between two long-time adversaries is now in jeopardy of collapsing completely.
The process is very much in flux at the present time; indeed, some of Trump’s own national security advisers appeared to be caught off guard. Whatever prompted Trump to pull out of the prospective sit-down, however, is a sideshow to the main story. And the main story is this: Nothing over the last several days has changed the reality that a diplomatic process remains the only way the war in Afghanistan will end.
As appropriate as it was for Washington to register its protest to Taliban violence — granting Taliban emissaries a presidential visit days after the group killed an American soldier would have been terrible optics and bad negotiating strategy — the Trump administration should be wary of delaying the process for too long. Suspending negotiations is one thing, but allowing them to flounder as the combatants escalate the war is something else entirely. The longer talks are suspended, the harder it will be to resurrect them from the grave.
Ironically, the delay provides the United States with an opportunity to reset its negotiating strategy and ensure the Afghan government that U.S. support will not be removed simply because the Taliban uttered a few promises. From here on out, the Taliban must not only commit to reducing violence and entering into a dialogue with their fellow Afghans, but actually go through with it.
When (or if) U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is dispatched back to Doha to resume the negotiations, he must deliver his Taliban counterparts a firm and unequivocal message: If the Taliban refuses to fulfill their promises, the U.S. troop withdrawals the group claims to want will be jeopardized. Right now, the Taliban are confident in the belief that U.S. military support to the Afghan national security forces will decrease or end regardless of implementation.
The Afghan government, highly dependent on the U.S. and NATO for everything from army personnel salaries to air support, is understandably anxious about the same thing. This dynamic is unhelpful for any U.S.-Taliban talks going forward, for it provides the insurgents with little of any incentive to compromise. Unless this basic dynamic changes, Washington should not expect to see progress.
The American people would like nothing more than a U.S. military drawdown from Afghanistan. It doesn’t take a genius to see why. After $755 billion in costs, thousands of American casualties, and a seemingly endless cycle of deployments, the Taliban remain a strong and resilient insurgency with control of roughly half the country. There are newly-minted soldiers now preparing to fly into Afghanistan who weren’t even alive when the war began, an indictment of a conflict that has persisted for what seems like an eternity.
Yet if peace talks have any chance at all in proceeding (let alone succeeding), a complete U.S. troop withdrawal will close that small window for good. A full American military departure before Afghan stakeholders settle on at least an outline of an initial political settlement will persuade the Taliban to choose fighting over negotiating as the best way to Achieve their goals. Assuming that a comprehensive and durable peace is the objective, departing will result in more violence, not less.
U.S. troops are not destined to stay in Afghanistan forever. Indeed, it is not the U.S. military’s job to bail out the Afghan government whenever it gets into trouble. But the most effective way for the United States to leave is help lay the groundwork for an intra-Afghan dialogue which belatedly begins to chip away at the problems that have powered the war for so long. This process will not be smooth or painless, and we can anticipate a lot of obstacles along the way. Some of them may be insurmountable.
In the end, Afghans will only be able to escape the 40-year long streak of internal violence when Afghanistan’s own power-brokers put their self-interest and thirst for power below what is best for the country. If U.S. troops leave before those hard discussions occur, it is highly likely the Afghan people will again have to wait for peace.