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Joe Biden must abandon bad deal and find new route in Afghanistan

Joe Biden must abandon bad deal and find new route in Afghanistan
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The Biden administration is reportedly doubling down on the deal that the Trump administration concluded with the Taliban more than one year ago. Negotiations with the Taliban are not the path to peace or to securing our key American national security interests. The Taliban remains determined to once more establish its oppressive rule over Afghanistan, crushing the human rights that the Biden administration has promised to champion. It remains intertwined with Al Qaeda and has shown neither the willingness nor the ability to keep its promises to deprive that group of safe haven. It also does not represent the Afghan or the Pashtun people.

Ending the war in Afghanistan in a way that protects American interests and supports American values will need a totally different strategy. The United States must help Afghans move away from the elite compact on which the settlement and government was built in the early 2000s. The Afghans we should be talking to now are the real representatives of the major communities rather than the Taliban. We have to help them come together in how peace will work. The Taliban can then decide to accept the deal or be irrelevant. It is the only way this war will end.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken evidently threatened President Ashraf Ghani with withdrawing United States forces if talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban do not find more progress. There is no news of any similar American overture made to the Taliban. The United States also apparently proposed dissolving the current government, elected on the basis of the constitution that the United States and the international community worked to create in the early 2000s, and forming an interim government that includes the Taliban. So all of those efforts assume that Ghani and the current Afghan order are problems and that engaging the Taliban and revising the constitution are vital for a solution.

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Both assumptions are wrong. A fresh approach for Afghanistan should be guided instead by these principles. The United States cannot partner with the Taliban against Al Qaeda, whose leader swears allegiance to each new Taliban commander. The relationship of these two groups is so strong that the Trump administration could not get the Taliban to break publicly from Al Qaeda, which has held its ground in Afghanistan during the term of the deal despite promises made by the Taliban to the contrary.

The Taliban is not a popular force in Afghanistan but the product of failed governance. Its fortunes there tend to wax and wane with key grievances of the local Afghan communities either starved of many essential services, especially dispute resolution, or angered by a sense of persecution by the government. When American forces and diplomats with their international partners have assisted and sometimes cajoled the government to redress those grievances while helping the Afghan people achieve basic security, the Taliban has been diminished and stability has increased.

The Afghan government was established back in the 2000s on the wrong bases, but the constitution itself is not the problem. The problem is in the fact that the current Afghan government configuration was based on one elite compact. The international community brokered power share deals among warlords instead of building consensus among the various ethnic groups for how the country should be governed. The warlords cemented the deals with financial plans using among other sources reconstruction funds from the international community. Alienated communities became more hostile to the government and more vulnerable to the Taliban, and the insurgency grew. The Biden administration, following the lead of the predecessor, makes the same mistake by focusing on getting the Taliban into the elite compact instead of tackling internal conflicts.

The Afghan government must be a part of the solution, but it needs the right kind of aid and incentives. Many of the warlords of the early 2000s have died, and former President Hamid Karzai, one of the architects and beneficiaries of such warlord deals, is out of power. His successor Ghani has long advocated for the reconstruction of the Afghan government on the sounder foundation of dialogue within the country itself. The Trump administration vilified Ghani and turned to the Taliban as its preference. The Biden administration now seems to be doing the same.

It should instead work with the Afghan president by understanding his flaws and strengths. It should speak with leaders for the ethnic groups about what kind of talks that Afghans really want to bring peace to the country. It should focus on helping them conduct those talks to resolve their grievances in their way. Afghans know how to do this. They have a tradition of consensual governance where communities come together and resolve grievances, and the central government in Kabul manages internal conflicts beyond what the communities can handle.

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Resistance to the Taliban has remained very high as the Afghan security forces have remained determined in fighting the Taliban even while the American military presence declined by almost 98 percent from around 100,000 in 2011 to some 2,500 today. A small American footprint is still critical since it provides the capabilities that the Afghans simply cannot generate on their own. It also lets the United States continue to operate essential missions to battle terrorism by itself in the region.

But the Biden administration should also reorient American policy toward Afghanistan, and toward the terrorism problem in general, away from the military approach the United States has pursued for nearly one decade. It can start by revitalizing efforts by American diplomats and aid workers to help Afghans solve their governance problems. American diplomats and aid workers know how to do this, as they have shown in Iraq, the Balkans, and elsewhere. They need more vital resources and more authorities, as well as military protection and support to conduct this work.

The “forever wars” will not end just because the United States leaves the theater. They will instead evolve until we are drawn in once more. A hasty American departure will trigger a civil war. Threatened communities will turn to the Taliban for protection like those in Iraq and Syria turned to Al Qaeda. The Trump administration deal worsened it and emboldened the Taliban while undermining the Afghan government. Bringing the Taliban back to partial power in an interim government will accelerate a civil war by igniting the groups the Taliban had viciously attacked. The Taliban will welcome Al Qaeda back regardless of its promises. Moreover, the global terrorism movement will also be fueled by a sense of victory.

Negotiations with the Taliban after the United States had announced its determination to pull the military out of Afghanistan was a mistake. The bad deal that it had produced offers no viable route forward. The Biden administration should stop doubling down on that bad deal and instead take the time to develop a new approach based on the current realities and vital American national security interests in Afghanistan.

Frederick Kagan is the director of the Critical Threats Project and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He is the author of “Choosing Victory” and an architect of the surge military strategy in Iraq.