Trump's approach in Afghanistan is first, best chance for solution to war

Trump's approach in Afghanistan is first, best chance for solution to war
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Recent news reports indicated President TrumpDonald John TrumpChasten Buttigieg: 'I've been dealing with the likes of Rush Limbaugh my entire life' Lawmakers paint different pictures of Trump's 'opportunity zone' program We must not turn our heads from the effects of traumatic brain injuries MORE will reduce our troop strength in Afghanistan by 4,000, bringing the total number to approximately 8,600. In early 2011, I arrived in Afghanistan when our troop strength exceeded 130,000 — the highest number during our 18-year war. As a U.S. Department of Defense civilian during the surge, I had the privilege of serving as the coalition’s deputy chief of rule of law and political adviser to the chief NATO diplomat in theater. During the 18 months I spent in Afghanistan, I had the fortune of knowing many great Americans whose friendship made our collective long hours easier. One of these friends, a talented military officer, in 2012 was killed for our country and our mission in Afghanistan. 

What was that mission? On 9/11, 2,976 Americans were killed. Seven days later, Congress authorized the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force … to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.” This task of defending American lives is what all servicemembers swear an oath to. 

We still have a vital U.S. national security interest in Afghanistan — that is, to ensure that terrorists cannot use the terrain to attack U.S. citizens, military and government personnel at home and abroad. The only way to achieve this is a political solution with regional actors joining. Our troop levels can only assist, not decide, political outcomes in Afghanistan. Greater military strength generally provides greater political leverage in negotiations. No number of troops can remedy defective policy, incoherent half-measures, acquiescence to nation-states backing our enemies, or a weak will.

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So, if a political solution is the only way to responsibly end our war in Afghanistan, who are the parties to a potential peace agreement? Who has influence over conditions in Afghanistan that would enable responsible U.S. withdrawal? Unfortunately, there are two very different answers to these questions. 

Regional actors outside of Afghanistan, not just the Afghan Taliban, have some control over conditions on the ground in Afghanistan. At his final appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen publicly stated that Pakistan uses the Haqqani Network to attack United States personnel. Today, the head of the Haqqani Network is the No. 2 leader of the Taliban. 

President Trump is the first American president to accurately assess the situation in Afghanistan and articulate that assessment publicly. In a January 2018 tweet, he wrote: “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has command and control over the Afghan Taliban, so for the United States to responsibly end this war, we must generate a genuine policy change in Pakistan’s ISI. 

So far, the ISI has given us U.S. casualties, lies and requests for more money. The intelligence agency creates conditions in Afghanistan that threaten the United States and then extorts the United States for money to get rid of these very conditions. We have gone in circles for years with the ISI’s “counter-terrorism cooperation.”

Our military did everything it was asked to do in Afghanistan. In support of our war in Afghanistan, 2,442 American patriots lost their lives. If our past political leaders showed a fraction of the courage and ingenuity that our military has, we could have resolved this conflict long ago. 

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The Trump administration has shown it has the requisite traits and approach to help bring this conflict to a responsible end: First and foremost, an accurate assessment; second, a willingness to meaningfully address regional bad actors; and third, willingness to walk away and go on fierce offense. In handling negotiations, President Trump and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPompeo to speak to influential Iowa GOP group Giuliani worked for Dominican Republic candidate amid Ukraine efforts: report Pompeo, foreign partners condemn Russian cyberattack on country of Georgia MORE have proven they will not be hustled like previous administrations. We have seen the results of the inverse — Americans paying dearly in blood and treasure with no result.

As part of our negotiations, the United States requires that the Taliban not allow terrorists to operate on terrain it controls or influences. We have only one precedent from the Taliban as to how it would discharge responsibilities to police terrorist groups in Afghanistan: 9/11. The Taliban allowed Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda to use Afghanistan’s terrain to attack the United States, lied about it, denied that bin Laden was behind the attack, and refused to turn him or other al Qaeda leadership over to the United States, resulting in the war.

To now outsource U.S. national security to the Taliban would be incomprehensible. If there is a chance to achieve a responsible end to the war in the near term, the administration’s principled approach has a chance. As with North Korea, the Trump administration has shown it is not so desperate to achieve a deal that it will put our nation in danger. President Trump has already once ceased talks with the Taliban. Our adversaries get a vote in how things go. 

Pakistan has not been the only nation-state undermining the United States in Afghanistan. The former U.S. commander in Afghanistan publicly raised indications of Russia arming the Taliban.  China has invited Taliban leadership for engagements, and gulf nations and Pakistan continue to influence the Taliban and other insurgents in Afghanistan. Because regional actors must be a part of the solution, our envoy for peace talks has engaged in difficult diplomacy. 

If we achieve an agreement, Pakistan, the Taliban, or any other party might later breach it. The American people should be prepared for the possibility that the United States would be compelled to again defend our vital national security interest: to ensure Afghanistan never again is used as a safe haven for terrorists to plan and execute attacks on the U.S. homeland or citizens abroad. 

The manner in which the Trump administration is handling political negotiations provides America’s first and best chance to achieve an acceptable political solution to bring our troops home.

Omar Qudrat, an attorney based in California, is a reserve officer in the U.S. Army. As a Department of Defense civilian official, he spent 18 months in Afghanistan during the surge. He subsequently became a counter-terrorism prosecutor.  The views expressed here are his and do not reflect the policy or positions of the U.S. Army or Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @omarqudrat1.