What comes next in Afghanistan?

What comes next in Afghanistan?
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Lost amid the intense media focus on the upcoming talks with North Korea and other pressing international issues is the conflict in Afghanistan, which at times appears to be an afterthought. That is unfortunate because it seems to have taken a turn for the worse.

According to the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan, more than 750 civilians were killed and nearly 1,500 injured in the first quarter of 2018 alone. Many of the highest profile Taliban and Islamic State attacks against civilians have occurred in Kabul, including one in late April that killed several journalists covering the conflict, which was the deadliest attack involving journalists in more than a decade.

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Since the Taliban announced the start of its spring offensive, several district centers and police compounds have already been overrun, with dozens of Afghan soldiers and police killed and wounded. In its most significant attack this year, the Taliban in early May temporarily seized control of the capital of the country’s western Farah province.

While it is true that a sharp uptick in violence and tactical setbacks for government forces are not unusual at the outset of each fighting season, there are several worrisome long-term indicators that have also surfaced and that deserve close scrutiny.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the U.S. government’s top watchdog on Afghanistan, recently reported that the number of Afghan security forces decreased by about 20,000 last year. SIGAR also issued an unusually bleak assessment claiming that much of the nearly $5 billion the U.S. has spent on programs to stabilize areas retaken from insurgents has been wasted.

The decline in troop strength is particularly problematic because the effort to bolster the Afghan military’s capabilities has been a linchpin of America’s overarching strategy for the past several years, and a key component of America’s eventual exit strategy. In fact, President TrumpDonald John TrumpIran claims it rejected Trump meeting requests 8 times ESPY host jokes Putin was as happy after Trump summit as Ovechkin winning Stanley Cup Russian ambassador: Trump made ‘verbal agreements’ with Putin MORE highlighted the goal of improving the Afghan military’s performance in his strategy speech last August.

Equally worrisome are recent press reports citing U.S. and Afghan government officials who estimate that the Taliban now has roughly 60,000 fighters, up sharply from its projected strength of approximately 20,000 fighters only four years ago. Although it is difficult to be precise when estimating both the Afghan military’s and the Taliban’s force size, the trend lines in each case are worrisome.

There are also troubling signs relating to the Taliban’s geographic influence. The latest SIGAR assessment noted that the percentage of the country’s population controlled or influenced by the Kabul government is about 65 percent. However, the BBC conducted its own comprehensive analysis and claims that Taliban fighters are now openly active in as much as 70 percent of the country. Regardless of which report is more accurate, neither paints a picture of a government that is significantly expanding its writ throughout the countryside.

Finally, the tenuous security situation and constant political gridlock is crippling the Afghan economy. GDP growth is forecast to be only 2.5 percent in 2018, meaning that Kabul will be unable to create sufficient jobs or spend more on its own defense for the foreseeable future. Kabul currently foots the bill for less than 10 percent of its defense budget.

So, 17 years after America’s intervention in Afghanistan, and nearly one year on from the rollout of President Trump’s new strategy, the situation looks depressingly familiar, if not worse. A young private or lieutenant who volunteered for the U.S. military following 9/11 is now within three years of retirement, and America has been fighting in Afghanistan for his or her entire military career. Against that backdrop, then, let me offer a few ideas that might help break the stalemate in our policy.

First, even as the military fight continues, U.S. policymakers might want to leverage fully the Taliban’s political office in Doha to jumpstart peace talks. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has expressed a willingness to negotiate with the Taliban without preconditions, and while the Taliban has refused to talk directly with Afghan government officials, viewing them as mere puppets of the United States, the Taliban might be enticed to join a broader dialogue under the right circumstances. As part of this proposal, U.S. diplomats could suggest that America’s long-term troop presence is up for discussion, but only in talks that involve the Kabul government as active participants.

Second, if we are able to commence talks, U.S. officials might usefully propose creative trust-building measures. One proposal could involve a joint effort to target Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan, buttressed, in select cases, with local ceasefire zones. The Taliban hates the Islamic State and wants to oust the group from the country, so we at least have a common enemy to fight.

Finally, U.S. officials could also use this opportunity to insist on clarifying America’s long-term presence in Afghanistan. It’s in nobody’s interest — including the Taliban, who desire engagement, international legitimacy, and financial assistance — for the United States to close our embassy, terminate financial aid, and withdraw completely, so we might have more leverage than we imagine to identify an acceptable long-term diplomatic and military footprint that safeguards U.S. interests in South Asia.

These proposals may seem unrealistic at the moment, but the existing U.S. playbook requires America to continue fighting, at the cost of additional U.S. military lives and around $45 billion per year, until the Taliban decides to lay down its arms. Given current trends, is that prospect any more realistic than what I have proposed?

This may be the right time, especially given the thaw in relations between Kabul and Islamabad, for each party to the conflict to begin creative discussions about what is minimally and mutually acceptable, and to abandon any hope of achieving maximalist objectives. As a former colleague and longtime Afghan expert remarked to me, “At Kabul’s Appomattox Court House, nobody is going to play the role of U.S. Grant.”

Michael P. Dempsey is the national intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a fellowship sponsored by the U.S. government. He served as the former acting director of national intelligence. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely the views of the author.