Some context is necessary to take stock of U.S. policy in Afghanistan in the wake of the diplomatic chaos created by President Donald Trump’s stunt to seize personal control — and therefore public attention — in the U.S. negotiations with the Taliban.
History has not been kind to foreign invaders of Afghanistan — from Alexander to Britain’s “Great Game” in the 19th century to the 1979-1989 Russian invasion and occupation. Eighteen years after launching military operations in Afghanistan in October 2001, the United States finds itself in a frustrating and costly dilemma similar to those of the other great powers of the past who charged into Afghanistan.
The historic parallels are also striking between the U.S. negotiations with the Taliban and the talks leading to the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam. With public support for the war in Vietnam lost and the American client government in Saigon dysfunctional and corrupt, President Nixon pursued an international peace agreement in 1973 to justify a way out of the conflict. In Paris, the U.S. diplomacy was conducted from a position of weakness — on the battlefield and at home. Hanoi knew Washington was desperate to find a diplomatic way to withdraw. As a result, the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 gave Nixon the rationale he needed to withdraw U.S. forces. Two years later, South Vietnam fell to the communists.
The recent bilateral negotiations between U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban representatives are reminiscent of the Paris peace talks. Khalilzad is negotiating from a position of weakness, and the Taliban are fully aware that Trump is eager to reach a deal to rationalize a significant withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country.
Right now, Afghan and U.S./NATO forces are in a reactive posture. The Taliban have the military initiative in Afghanistan, striking targets in Kabul seemingly at will and seizing important territory around the country.
The Khalilzad negotiations appear to assume unrealistically that the Taliban might engage in a future peaceful power-sharing arrangement with the current government in Kabul. Once the U.S. military capability reduced, the Taliban can simply ignore any element of the agreement — just as Hanoi did in 1975.
The United States deployed military forces to Afghanistan in 2001 to bring Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda to justice after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. Very swiftly, U.S. operations toppled the unpopular Taliban Government in Kabul that had hosted al Qaeda. The time to negotiate with the Taliban was this early period of engagement when the U.S. held a position of strength and had public support in the U.S. and Afghanistan.
But the Bush administration, which gave priority to its war in Iraq, never provided the forces necessary to completely secure Afghanistan. Over time, local Afghan support to the international presence declined, the security situation in the country deteriorated, and a weak and often corrupt government in Kabul lost the confidence of the Afghan people.
Meanwhile, influential neighbors, including Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China, are watching the ongoing U.S. negotiating circus closely. They all have an interest in a U.S withdrawal from Afghanistan, and they also have a tremendous capacity to cause trouble.
The most critical U.S. national security interests were satisfied when Osama bin Laden was killed and al Qaeda was reduced to a secondary threat to the U.S. With those objectives achieved, President TrumpDonald TrumpFive reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season Giving thanks for Thanksgiving itself Immigration provision in Democrats' reconciliation bill makes no sense MORE, like Obama before him, has pushed to reduce the U.S. military commitment to Afghanistan to the minimum over the resistance of the Pentagon and civilian political factions in and out of government.
While his methods may be bumbling, self-serving and diplomatically incompetent, Trump is right to advance the process of serious U.S. military reductions from Afghanistan.
The people of the United States have given the Afghan leaders more than enough assistance to defend the nation against the return of the Taliban to power. At some point, the Afghans must stand on their own feet and defend themselves.
Today, the vital U.S. interest is to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a secure base of operations for extremist forces to launch attacks against the United States, our allies and interests. That interest can be accomplished by contingency forces stationed outside Afghanistan.
The development of a functioning Afghan democracy also is in America’s interest, but this is a goal that will take decades to achieve and will require a determined commitment by the government of Afghanistan and the full support of the Afghan people. A limited American military presence cannot guarantee the protection or development of democratic values without the will of the government and the local people. Yet, even with determined local commitment and public support, real change could take decades to achieve.
There is nothing wrong with negotiating with the Taliban if the limitations of any agreement with them are understood. Straightforward talks with leaders in Pakistan — which accommodated the Taliban for years — and with the Afghan government are more important to shaping the way forward in the region.
Ultimately, the path to long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan is the will of the Afghans to defend themselves. The best way out of Afghanistan is for the U.S. and its allies to ensure that the Kabul Government and regional powerbrokers understand that international security is not open-ended and that serious drawdowns will be forthcoming.
The Afghans must commit to actions to strengthen popular support to the Kabul government, including anti-corruption measures and competent police and military forces. In exchange, the U.S. should offer limited military assistance and training and non-military aid to institutions of government and public projects. If the Afghan partners cannot commit to serious reform and actions to improve governance, the U.S. will only be wasting more lives and resources in a futile effort to prop up a failed structure.
In the end, Afghans must decide for themselves whether they want to accept future Taliban rule, and whether the leaders and people of Afghanistan can muster the will to defend themselves to insure a more open and democratic future. The U.S. and its allies can help, but the days of American domination of the security of Afghanistan should end soon.
James W. Pardew is a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria and career Army intelligence officer. He has served as Deputy Assistant Secretary General of NATO and is the author of Peacemakers: American Leadership and the End of Genocide in the Balkans.