Afghanistan: Need for thinking beyond bumper stickers

Afghanistan has a war, a peace negotiation and a presidential election campaign ongoing while the United States signals that it may, or may not, reduce its military presence there. With such complexity, it is important to think beyond the simple phrases of “stay,” “can’t stay,” and “negotiate” that occupy public discussion. Certain basics stand out:  

The current posture is sustainable, and should be considered separately from whether it is wise.

The United States and its allies are unlikely to win in Afghanistan, but they definitely can lose.

Losing has consequences — for America, as well as for Afghans. Those consequences need consideration.

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The United States can negotiate its withdrawal but only Afghans can negotiate peace among Afghans. How we use our diplomatic assistance and military tools to support an acceptable outcome needs to integrate the above propositions.

The usual argument for leaving Afghanistan includes reference to more than 2,300 dead and over $1 trillion spent, concluding that these costs are unsustainable. They are — but they have little bearing on current costs. Right now, our all-in costs for sustaining U.S. diplomatic and military presence in Afghanistan are about $45 billion a year, half of the cost of the years 2010-2012.  

This is real money, but it is not back-breaking in the U.S. budget and it probably could be reduced further. Casualties are down. In 2018, 12 troops died in Afghanistan. The same year, 80 died in training accidents. Death is tragic, but the comparison tells us that the war in Afghanistan is sustainable. Whether we should want to sustain it is another question that demands consideration of other costs.

Based on my visits to Afghanistan and discussions, I believe that although Afghan forces are fighting bravely and not collapsing, the United States and its NATO and Afghan allies cannot win, at least not while Pakistan continues offering the Taliban sanctuary. But we can choose not to lose. So long as allied air power, with a small ground presence, supports the fight, the Taliban cannot win, either. The Taliban can expand its rural presence but cannot hold a city. Thus, there is a big difference between losing and not losing. This, then, goes to questions of risks and values.

Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are in Afghanistan. Is leaving Afghanistan more dangerous to America than having the same terrorists in other countries? Any answer is speculative, but there are differences. Osama bin Laden wrote that he hoped the attack on New York would draw America into an attack on Afghanistan that it would not have the will to sustain. To prove bin Laden right would strengthen al Qaeda psychologically, encouraging their belief that God is with them.

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The Islamic State has taken root in Afghanistan, despite attacks by the Afghan government, coalition forces and the Taliban. If we give up the fight, ISIS will become stronger and harder to remove.

There are also values that need to be considered. Progress in Afghanistan is imperfect, but there is progress — in human rights, girls’ education and women’s place in society, and towards democracy where Afghans continue to risk substantial violence for the chance to vote. It is one thing to conclude that Americans no longer want to sacrifice for these things in Afghanistan. It is something else to say to all those Afghans who have risked their own lives for these rights, and trusted in our promises of support, that “we’re tired and we want to go home.”  

The preferred outcome is unquestionably a negotiated peace that defends against terrorism and preserves a chance for continuation of the values we espouse. Saying so, however, does not achieve it. That depends on two interlocking questions: What kind of posture makes success in negotiations likely? And what do we do if the Taliban won’t agree to a peace that actually has strong guarantees against terrorism and protects at least some fundamental rights? Strangely, the answer to both may be the same.

Negotiating a compromise requires that both parties believe they must give up some of what they want in order to achieve other goals. If the Taliban believes that the United States ultimately will give up everything, perhaps for paper promises easily broken later, then the Taliban need not compromise. This is particularly true since compromise means they have to confront difficult contradictions within their own ranks about the nature of a future government. So long as the Taliban believe they can negotiate a U.S. withdrawal, there is no strong reason for them to address their difficult internal questions.

Hence, perhaps paradoxically for western audiences, the Taliban are likely only to decide that compromise is required if they are convinced that the United States and its allies will stay if there is no compromise. That need not mean that every aspect of current forces or costs must be kept as they are, nor that we must be in the business of state-building. If the mission is redefined from “winning” to “preventing defeat,” the forces and costs required can be less. The point will not be one of numbers, but of long-term capacity to deny the Taliban victory.

Some downsizing of forces is possible while avoiding specific time deadlines. Negotiating strongly, while making clear that we are prepared to fight on, gives the best chance of success. It simultaneously keeps our choices open if negotiations fail. And providing reassurance to the Afghan people will significantly strengthen their will to fight on. To negotiate successfully, we will need to show that we are equally prepared to fight.

Ronald E. Neumann, a former infantry officer in Vietnam, is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. He was U.S. ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan, the latter from 2005-2007. He has made many visits back since. Follow on Twitter @AcadofDiplomacy.