We don’t need the Taliban’s cooperation to end our war in Afghanistan
Washington and Kabul want to accelerate peace talks to end the war in Afghanistan, both governments announced last week, but the third party involved — the Taliban — is not exactly cooperative. There “has been no agreement” for direct talks with the Afghan government, a Taliban representative said Sunday, reiterating the group’s longstanding refusal of official talks with Kabul, especially before a bilateral deal is reached with the United States.
The Taliban’s obstinacy on this point is unfortunate, as intra-Afghan negotiations will be crucial to any lasting peace or stability in Afghanistan. But it is vital we do not overstate the importance of such talks to the more immediate project of ending U.S. military intervention.
Whether the Taliban ever officially talks to the Afghan government, and even whether American and Taliban negotiators meet or miss their Sept. 1 deadline for a deal, the imperative of prompt U.S. withdrawal remains the same. To make American exit dependent on Taliban compliance is to wallow in the same mistaken assumption that has prolonged this war beyond all reason: the absurd notion that the United States can “fix” Afghanistan, and the preposterous proposal that we continue to try.
Cognizance of the last 18 years of American intervention in Afghanistan ought to be enough to disabuse anyone of the idea that a military victory is possible here — but Washington has never been a quick study. The State Department recently reiterated, in “The Wall Street Journal’s” paraphrase, “that the U.S. has demonstrated its commitment to Afghanistan over nearly two decades of military intervention,” a commitment that has entailed “the thousands of American and allied lives lost and billions of taxpayer dollars spent.” That’s all true, but its citation is an exercise in missing the point, for the price of this commitment is high indeed, but its purchase is consistently rotten.
The Taliban still controls many portions of Afghanistan and the U.S.-backed government is hardly a triumph of American nation building. “Despite 17 years of governance development, corruption remains rampant in Afghanistan,” notes Ret. Col. Daniel S. Morgan, who deployed to Afghanistan multiple times, at The Hill. In fact, Morgan adds, the country was measurably less corrupt “before the U.S. committed itself to Afghanistan and irresponsibly flooded it in money.”
Washington’s task now is to recognize that, regardless of how these negotiations proceed (or stall), perpetuating this poisonous commitment is a fool’s errand. Continuing American military intervention in Afghanistan will result in more American and Afghan lives lost. It will lead to more non-fatal U.S. casualties, with the devastating personal consequences and public costs they entail. It will see billions more U.S. tax dollars wasted on the impossible aim of forcible, external transformation of Afghan society into a Western-style democracy.
Keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan will also fail to accomplish anything for American security. This is so on two count. First, only wishful thinking can deny that organizations like the Taliban and al Qaeda will have a presence in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, no matter what the United States does or does not do. “Afghanistan will always struggle with insurgent organizations despite any political settlement,” Morgan writes. “No one should expect the multiple different insurgent groups to comply with any treaty. It is folly for any U.S. leader to think otherwise.” The sort of political changes that might alter this reality will not be accomplished by foreign military occupation. Past deployment of 100,000 U.S. boots on the ground could not eradicate insurgency and terror in Afghanistan; keeping a smaller force there indefinitely will not do so either. War is the wrong tool for the job.
And the job itself is unnecessary to protect America. The second disconnect between U.S. security and our presence inAfghanistan stems from the nature of global terrorism: It is global. It’s plotting is not limited to Afghanistan. Asking American troops to police Afghanistan forever is no guarantee against future terror attacks — on the contrary, it wastes limited defense resources on a project is strategically useless if not downright counterproductive. The Taliban’s agreement in recent talks to deny al Qaeda and similar groups refuge in Afghanistan to stage terrorist attacks abroad is nice to have, but it is not necessary to keep U.S. interests safe, and its enforcement must not be a determining factor of overdue U.S. exit.
If peace talks can be accelerated, wonderful. It is fantastic if the Taliban can be persuaded to join official conversations with Kabul. If the negotiations produce a new stability and a path to lasting peace and freedom for the Afghan people, that is so much the better. Diplomacy is the right answer to Afghanistan’s political problems — but it is rarely a quick or straightforward answer, and it cannot be a precondition for U.S. exit. After 18 years, it is time for this war to end, and America doesn’t need the Taliban’s acquiescence to end it.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.