Don’t Sign a Death Warrant for Afghan Democracy
On Aug. 16, the U.S. envoy for Afghan peace talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, briefed President Donald Trump’s national security team on the details of negotiations with the Taliban that, in theory, offer a way to end America’s military involvement in its longest war. While a deal has not been finalized and details are scarce, the United States is reportedly contemplating the withdrawal of troops, down to 8,600 immediately and possibly down to zero by October 2020, in exchange for the Taliban cutting ties with al-Qaeda and entering into reconciliation talks with the Afghan government — something the Taliban has refused to do until inking a deal with Washington. This is flirting with disaster. An agreement with the Taliban tied to an American withdrawal threatens the destruction of the Afghan enterprise that the United States and its Afghan allies have sacrificed much to put in place. If the U.S. military withdraws under these or similar conditions, the Afghan government will falter and the Taliban will be closer to achieving their ultimate goal of reestablishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Even though there are many failures associated with America’s long military involvement in Afghanistan, an American deal with the Taliban threatens to undo notable successes in the development of a representative Afghan republic.
Proponents of a deal would argue that this agreement would allow Trump to follow through on his commitment to draw-down American forces prior to the 2020 elections. Multiple Democratic candidates have expressed their support to bring an “end to the forever wars” — indicating a withdrawal has bipartisan backing. Since the deal is still unsigned, however, senior members of the administration, and even some in Congress, must have given the president sufficient reason to delay his decision. These critics are right to resist the temptation of an expedient but bad deal. Hopefully, the president will not succumb to the political inertia and wishful thinking pushing for him to reach an agreement with the Taliban so quickly. Far from being the political slam-dunk that some of the president’s advisors may suggest, it is more likely to turn into a disaster.
After nearly two decades of inconclusive war, the desire to withdrawal from Afghanistan is understandable, but the proposed United States-Taliban agreement is a poor way out. Trust in Taliban promises is unfounded. They consider the Afghan government “U.S. puppets” and they will likely become even more pugnacious after American troops begin to leave. Pakistan is supposed to help America disengage from this conflict, but Washington continues to overestimate Islamabad’s influence over the Taliban, even though its track record of promises made and unkept is hardly reassuring.
Ordinary Afghans, who once greeted American forces as liberators from the Taliban, are now worried that the U.S. government will abandon them. The Afghans I know and speak with tell me that even the appearance of an American withdrawal, as part of any deal with the Taliban, gives an advantage to the insurgents and devastates public confidence in the Afghan government. Their concerns are not without reason. A hasty U.S. exit from Afghanistan will worsen instability and possibly pave the road for the Taliban’s return to power. And if that were to happen, the U.S. government would be ill-advised to trust Taliban assurances offered about cutting ties with terrorist organizations.
I have long argued against prioritizing reconciliation talks with the Taliban as a viable exit strategy. In 2013, I wrote an article that appeared in Foreign Policy about the Afghan-led “reconciliation foolosophy,” instigated by then-President Hamid Karzai to bring about peace prior to the end of his term in office. The following year, also in Foreign Policy, I outlined errors in President Barack Obama’s push for reconciliation based on a unhelpful distinction between the self-proclaimed Islamic State and Taliban. At the time, Obama’s national security team sought to build a case for an expedient truce. Last year in War on the Rocks, I argued against premature optimism over the latest push for an agreement between the United States and the Taliban.
That was then — now, Washington’s goal is to sign the deal with the Taliban by Sep. 1. American negotiators appear so eager for this to materialize that they seem willing to sacrifice Washington’s bilateral security agreement with the Afghan government. This agreement outlines the U.S. commitment to “enhance the ability of Afghanistan to deter threats against its sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity” and “non-interference in the domestic affairs.” Besides Washington’s commitment to honor the bilateral security agreement with Kabul, if the intra-Afghan reconciliation talks fail after a hasty agreement and the rush to the exits, civil war, reminiscent of the 1990s, will likely follow. Any gains from an expedient exit will be outweighed by the tarnished American reputation for failing to keep its promises and will cast doubt on global U.S. security commitments to other allied nations.
The Enemy’s Feigned Sincerity on Reconciliation
Contrary to public statements, the Taliban are not interested in sharing power with the government in Kabul — they intend to overthrow it. The myth that the Taliban are willing to join the Afghan government is currently legitimized by those in the U.S. government advocating for a peace deal at all costs. If anything, the Taliban’s negotiating objective is not to secure peace, but to finalize a political agreement that starts a U.S. withdrawal and clears the way for the group’s ascent to power. Last year, former Pakistani Ambassador Hussain Haqqani argued that the Taliban increased attacks during reconciliation talks, “to demonstrate to true believers that the American eagerness to negotiate is the result of weakness, whereas the jihadis are willing to talk only to ease the withdrawal of infidels without giving up on their ideology.” Meanwhile, American negotiators believe that a U.S. agreement with the insurgent group will reduce violence. Taliban actions in the field, however, make it clear that they are interested only in regime change, and are willing to use any means necessary.
Without a U.S. presence in Afghanistan, odds are that a bloodier ethnic-based civil war, similar to that of the early 1990s, would likely break out. Such a conflict would bolster the need for the Taliban to retain the terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, which have provided shock troops to the Taliban since the 1990s. These groups have foreign fighters supporting the Taliban today. A perceived Taliban victory would even provide the inspiration for fundamentalists to seek refuge in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and emulate its ideology in their own struggle against their governments elsewhere. As the Taliban continue to extend their territory, global jihadi recruits will likely flock to Afghanistan. Even if they don’t threaten the United States immediately, Islamist fundamentalists would likely return to a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, just like they did before 9/11. The Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan (the subject of a recent roundtable in the Texas National Security Review) has proved particularly resilient against U.S. and Afghan counter-terrorism efforts. A further destabilization of Afghanistan would provide more growth space for the Islamic State. At that point, the deal with the Taliban that, in theory, allowed Trump to withdraw American forces will turn into a political liability prior to the 2020 U.S. presidential elections, not an advantage.
Overemphasis on Pakistan’s Support
Another key problem with the current deal is its reliance on Pakistan. According to Trump, in a meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House, Pakistan committed to help “extricate” U.S. forces from Afghanistan. However, this approach has been tried before and failed. For decades, Washington has been frustrated by Islamabad’s duplicitous behavior — accepting American security aid in exchange for allowing the United States to supply Afghanistan through its country, while also providing sanctuary to the Taliban and other terrorist groups. Despite being fully aware of this behavior in Afghanistan, the Trump administration is preemptively rewarding Pakistan with arms sales for something that its leaders are neither able nor willing to accomplish.
Further, Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban’s strategic decisions is more limited than many people seem to think. Certainly, Pakistan helped the group grow in the 1990s, and resuscitated the remnants of the Taliban regime after the American invasion kicked them out in 2001. The covert relationship between Pakistan’s intelligence services and the Taliban, and the provision of safe havens to the group, and Islamabad’s long-standing overt support for the Taliban has been covered in the press extensively. But, after the drawdown of American troops during the Obama administration, Taliban territorial gains in Afghanistan had more to do with a weak Afghan government than help from Pakistan. Since then, the Taliban have been enriched more by heavy investment in Afghanistan’s illicit drug, mining, and smuggling operations, than from Pakistani largesse. Simply put, Pakistan may still support the Taliban covertly, but does not have as much sway over the group as it enjoyed previously.
The Deal with Taliban is the Fast Track to Failure
The Taliban have explicitly outlined their goal of continuing the fight against the Afghan government, even after an American withdrawal. Yet, U.S. negotiators somehow believe that a deal for a foreign troop withdrawal will be followed by a ceasefire between the Afghan government and the Taliban. This is unrealistic. Signing a deal now, without heeding the warnings highlighted above, is like the crew of the Titanic steaming into the North Atlantic with no lookouts, even after reports of icebergs.
At the same time, it is hard to ignore that the status quo is not working. The U.S. mission in Afghanistan costs roughly $45 billion per year and it has not succeeded in arresting a growing insurgency. Washington’s preference for strategies that hypothetically achieve results quickly is at the heart of this failure. The epitome of American strategic myopia in Afghanistan is this latest push for a hasty settlement with the Taliban. So what is the third path?
It is not too late to strengthen the Afghan state, and the democracy that undergirds it. This is the only path to countering long-term threats from the 20 Islamist terrorist groups active in Afghanistan, most of which are aligned with the Taliban. As such, setting the conditions for the U.S. withdrawal must focus on getting more out of the Afghan government, an enterprise that Washington has enormous leverage over as its financial guarantor. This leverage has never been properly exploited in 18 years of war. The U.S. reliance on Pakistan to influence the Taliban in keeping their promises is misplaced, in large part because of Islamabad’s limited grip on the group.
Moving forward, American diplomats and military advisors should leverage Afghanistan’s reliance on financial aid to demand results in the delivery of governance and security sector reform, as well as demonstrative progress in counter-corruption initiatives. U.S. funding for all programs should be monitored and evaluated for effectiveness. For example, if programs fail to meet realistic goals, funding should be withheld until adjustments are made and removed if changes are not swift.
In the near term, to avert disaster, Trump should instruct his national security team to pause negotiations, support Afghan elections, and ultimately put the burden of intra-Afghan dialogue in the hands of a new government in Kabul, entrusted with the people’s mandate. Simultaneously, he should direct the State Department to realign its priorities to support the strengthening of civilian institutions and holding the Afghan government to account for its failings. The president should also ask for a reduction of U.S. forces in Afghanistan without connecting this to reconciliation talks.
Ironically, a rushed bad deal with the Taliban is not necessary to achieve a key domestic political objective for coalition countries — reducing the number of Western troops in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s security forces are getting stronger. For example, Afghan special operations units perform complex operations routinely, with limited foreign support. Can they do better? Of course. More needs to be done by the Afghan security forces to limit civilian casualties and develop their own organic air support capabilities. Flawed and faltering institutions must reform or lose donor funding. The key to success is the empowerment of dynamic leaders, such as Deputy Minister of the Interior Khoshal Sadat. Afghans are eager to carry more of the burden for their own security. Bringing the troops numbers to 8600 now, and even fewer in a year, is still possible. Considering the nuanced counter-terrorism mission that endures, those Americans who remain should be from special operations units, with a small contingent of conventional enablers.
While Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential elections were flawed, heavy voter turnout demonstrated that Afghan citizens preferred democracy over Taliban rule. In this context, it is in the interests of United States to strengthen the Afghan state by supporting the September 2019 presidential elections, rather than erode public confidence with news of a likely withdrawal weeks ahead of the contest. Once the new government is in office, American military and development planners need to consider concrete ways of improving the performance of the Afghan government, both in and outside the security sectors. Only after focusing first on the genuine strengthening of the Afghan state should U.S. engage with the Taliban in the future.
The president is a businessman keen on a return on investment. No doubt, he feels that he gave Afghanistan a chance for more than two years — against his initial instincts — without adequate returns. However, the president ought to consider that he cannot compensate for a poorly performing investment by signing a deal that harms America’s credibility and renders all expenditure in Afghanistan a total loss, particularly when there’s still a chance for a better outcome.
The president and the American people might wish that a withdrawal from Afghanistan is just around the corner. But wishful thinking, rather than a comprehensive long-term regional strategy, has been the principal cause of America’s failed approach. Ending the “forever wars” is a great political slogan, but it could backfire in the U.S. presidential elections if Afghanistan descends into chaos. In a recent survey in The Atlantic, 55 percent of respondents said that they would support the decision if Trump authorized the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and only 23 percent said that they wouldn’t. The same survey, however, reveals that veterans and active-duty member support for withdrawal of troops drops significantly if considered under the context of the U.S. “cutting a deal and leaving Afghanistan in defeat.” Irrespective of any deal with the Taliban, the White House can afford to withdraw a significant portion of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and make continuing financial support to the Afghan government contingent on demonstrable progress. Such an approach has a greater chance of achieving the president’s desire to “extricate” America from Afghanistan than a flawed deal with the Taliban that, in the end, is doomed to fail.
Ioannis “Gianni” Koskinas is a senior fellow with the International Security Program at New America, where he focuses on foreign policy issues with an emphasis on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and the Levant. He is the CEO of the Hoplite Group.
Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Sgt. Brandon Aird)