It took seven months of bickering about prisoners, multiple trips from U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to Doha, Kabul, and Islamabad and a few breakdowns along the way. Still, the intra-Afghan peace negotiations have finally arrived. For the first time since the war began shortly after the 9/11 attacks 19 years ago, the Afghan government and the Taliban will sit face-to-face on Saturday, Sept. 12, to begin a diplomatic process that the world hopes will eventually produce a comprehensive peace accord.
News of the talks comes at the same time U.S. troop levels in the country are projected to be reduced by nearly 50 percent over the next two months and as President Donald Trump formally nominated William Ruger, a U.S. Navy Reservist, Vice President for Research and Policy at the Charles Koch Institute and long-time critic of the war, to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan.
There is a sense of anticipation about what the intra-Afghan talks will produce and whether they will succeed. There is a consensus that the negotiations will be extraordinarily complicated, given the weighty issues at stake for the Afghans. But for U.S. foreign policy officials, it's vitally important to understand that Afghanistan — and Afghanistan alone — will determine its future.
As Afghans seek to hash out their differences at the table, the Trump administration (and any administration that may come after it) must remember three simple facts about this war.
The U.S. achieved its objective a long time ago
There is an assumption propagated in Washington, D.C. that the United States still has business to do in Afghanistan and that a long-term U.S. troop presence is required to accomplish it. Yet the U.S. objective was never about transforming Afghanistan into a beacon of democracy in South Asia, building a resilient Afghan society with a prosperous economy or minimizing the violence in some nationwide, crime fighting-like endeavor. While these goals are certainly noble, they aren't necessary for keeping the American people safe. And they aren't possible without a massive, expensive, multi-decade commitment — one that would be even more costly than the $2 trillion Washington has already spent on a wasteful nation-building exercise.
The reason the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan in the first place was to eliminate Al-Qaeda's freedom of movement and punish the Taliban government for hosting a terrorist group that killed nearly 3,000 people on September 11, 2001. By early 2002, a short four months after the first U.S. airstrikes, the U.S. military accomplished what it set out to achieve. Counterterrorism has since turned into counterinsurgency and nation-building and an immense cost to the U.S. military, the U.S. Treasury, and to U.S. foreign policy.
Afghan talks should not determine whether the U.S. leaves
Kabul and the Taliban will spend the remainder of the year in deep, intense debate about how Afghanistan should be governed, what form of government Afghanistan should adopt, how power within that government should be divided, and whether the Afghan national security forces can enlist tens of thousands of former Taliban fighters into the ranks. There will also be angry, passionate differences of opinion between the two delegations (and very likely within the delegations themselves) about the status of women in Afghan society, not to mention the protections afforded to Afghanistan's minority communities. For the Afghan people, all these issues are serious, perhaps even existential.
None of them, however, will be resolved quickly. Pegging a full U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan on the willingness of the Afghan government and the Taliban coming to terms on all of these items is a foolish connection to make. It could very well keep the U.S. military stuck in the country for another two decades. U.S. service members should not be asked to delay reuniting with their families back home until Afghans find a way to make peace with one another after 40 consecutive years of war.
Don't worry about "safe-havens"
One of the most widespread arguments against pulling out of Afghanistan is concern about Afghanistan becoming a playground for terrorists around the world. This, however, vastly overstates the importance of so-called "safe-havens" in the current environment. The fact is that international terrorist groups don't need territorial safe-haven to operate anymore. All they require is a message-board, some slick propaganda, and the ability to inspire a single, crazed individual to commit an attack.
Permanent troop deployments in places like Afghanistan are not necessary to protect the American people from terrorism. There is a more effective, efficient, and less costly way to do it—maximizing Washington's unique worldwide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, hardening its internal defenses, ensuring law enforcement at the national, state, and local levels have the resources needed to prevent plots from being executed and improving the intelligence-to-intelligence collaboration with foreign partners that is so critical to managing the threat more broadly.
As William Ruger wrote in February, "Our brave troops have accomplished what they needed to on that battlefield. For far too long, we have muddled along in that country [Afghanistan], sacrificing countless lives and over a trillion dollars in pursuit of murky goals not directly connected to our safety."
Truer words have never been written. One hopes President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE will take the advice of his nominee.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.