The Trump administration is anxious to end America’s long war in Afghanistan. This is understandable but if Washington settles on an exit strategy that does not involve a robust deal between the Taliban and the civilian government in Kabul, 18 years of sacrifice could have been wasted.
This week in Qatar, intensive talks between US officials and the Taliban have produced an outline agreement. In return for an American military withdrawal, the Taliban says it would deny terrorist groups that might threaten the US any future presence on Afghan territory.
In a basic sense this would be a fulfillment of American war aims. The younger President Bush invaded Afghanistan because al-Qaeda planned the 9/11 attacks there. But there are glaring problems with the “framework” agreement negotiated by Zalmay Khalilzad (for the US) and Mullah Abdul Baradar, released from custody in Pakistan especially for the talks.
One problem is that the agreement depends on trust in the Taliban, which has done little to earn it since being driven from power in December 2001. Another is that the Taliban is undertaking to keep at least 20 terror networks out of the country, and one of them, the Haqqani network, is itself a Taliban offshoot. Most damaging to the agreement’s chances of success is that during the Doha talks Afghanistan’s President, Ashraf Ghani, has been a mere bystander.
So far Mullah Baradar has refused to talk directly to the Ghani government because he considers it a puppet of the United States. He hasn’t ruled out the idea but is insisting on a full withdrawal of America’s remaining 14,000 troops first.
To allow the Taliban to set the timetable could prove calamitous. The best counter-terrorism strategy for Afghanistan is to bind senior Taliban figures into its civilian government, preferably at ministerial level. Washington is in a position to help make this happen but its main source of leverage is its military presence. If that were hastily withdrawn, a return to provincial power struggles or full-blown civil war would be more likely than the ceasefire and political settlement Afghanistan desperately needs.
Across swaths of the country, battle-hardened US troops have learned how to keep the Taliban at bay. At huge cost they have prevented Taliban fighters occupying any major town or city for more than a few days at a time. But time and space are on the Taliban’s side. A BBC investigation last year found its fighters were openly active in 70 per cent of the country, and a 2017 US intelligence assessment said a complete American withdrawal could mean fresh attacks on US targets within two years.
It could also mean a return to Taliban control of towns where girls and women currently enjoy education and employment rights which the Ghani government is pledged to defend.
Western dreams of nation-building in Afghanistan have died in the dust of a thousand skirmishes over nearly two decades of fighting. It is reasonable now for Washington to attempt to define its interests strictly in terms of its own security. That was Vice-President Joe Biden’s approach in the Obama years; Trump is by no means the first president to despair at the cost and bloodshed of open-ended foreign military entanglements. But it is vital now that he gets the sequencing right. The Taliban must be bound into Afghanistan’s civilian government before a US withdrawal, not the other way round.
Wednesday January 30, 2019