The US can't seem to live without Afghanistan

The US can't seem to live without Afghanistan
© Getty

The eighth round of U.S.-Taliban negotiations concluded this week without an accord. Still, there’s a real possibility that an agreement will be concluded by September.

It’s far too early to call winners and losers before the details of a framework accord are announced and likely even afterwards, given the uncertainties inherent in any accord. But here are several key politically inconvenient realities that would seem to flow from any U.S.-Taliban agreement. 

This isn’t about peace

On August 11, as Afghans were marking the Muslim festival of Eid Al-Adha, U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad expressed hope that “this is the last Eid where Afghanistan is at war.” I worked with Khalilzad at the State Department, and he’s one smart negotiator.

ADVERTISEMENT

Having been there and done that on the Arab-Israeli issue, I know the importance of remaining confident and optimistic. That’s particularly true in circumstances where the Afghan government is feeling marginalized by the U.S., suspicious of the Taliban and worried that the U.S. is looking to head for the exits and not all that interested in becoming a permanent fixture in Afghanistan’s future.

Still, we need to stop using the words “peace” and “Afghanistan” in the same sentence. Peace in Afghanistan, or anything remotely related to that condition, when neither side can even agree on a durable cease-fire, is at best an aspiration, but probably more likely a fantasy.

And in any event, it is unlikely to be delivered by America. What Khalilzad is engaged in now with the Taliban is about securing a transactional arrangement to make withdrawal – not a transformed, stable and whole Afghanistan – the focus and goal of U.S. policy.

It is about U.S. withdrawal

Still, Khalilzad has said on occasion that the U.S. is pursuing “a peace agreement not a withdrawal agreement; a peace agreement that enables withdrawal." It’s a clever formulation and leaves open the possibility that even with an agreement on a withdrawal timeline, any significant drawdown would be “conditions based.”

But at other times, the U.S. has threatened that if the talks with the Taliban don’t move forward, the president might pull troops out faster. Both the public and political elite have lost interest in the war. With the exception of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), not a single candidate mentioned the longest war in American history during their opening or closing statements in the second round of Democratic presidential debates.

ADVERTISEMENT

 The war has taken 3,500 U.S. and coalition lives and cost upwards of $132 billion. And President TrumpDonald John TrumpThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Impeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Judd Gregg: The big, big and bigger problem MORE has committed himself in a way neither of his two predecessors did to getting out of costly and unwinnable wars.

Afghan officials would love to believe in U.S. assurances that Washington will keep counter-terrorism forces in the country for years to come, partly to help assist Afghan security forces and partly to press the Taliban to make concessions in inter-Afghan talks.

And any drawdown of the remaining 14,000 U.S. forces will take time. But as one former U.S. official – reportedly a sounding board for official policy – quipped: If Afghanistan is “going to go backward, then it’s going to go backward. It’s an independent country, not the 51st state.”

At best, no matter how sincere and committed U.S. negotiators may be to a more peaceful Afghanistan, the peace component is tethered to an inter-Afghan dialogue not to ongoing U.S. commitments and assurances. Any putative peace process is cover to provide the proverbial decent interval for the U.S. to withdraw most of its forces.   

Nation-building is heading south

Assuming the two key issues on the table between the U.S. and Taliban negotiators are worked out – a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces and security guarantees to deal with al-Qaeda and other jihadi terror groups – the door opens to a universe of headaches, challenges and seemingly unresolvable problems between factions that despise one another, and in the case of the Taliban won’t even recognize the central government.  

What is new in the U.S. approach is that Washington seems to have finally untethered its own withdrawal from the challenge of nation-building.

And it’s just as well. The catalogue of problems – from the eventual disposition of U.S. forces and the role of women to how to integrate Taliban and Afghan security forces, governmental power-sharing and the degree of political centralization of the political system – remain unresolved in an environment of deep mistrust and a lack of commitment to a comprehensive cease-fire.

The Taliban’s recent gains and rising leverage, and the weakening of the Afghan security forces, couldn’t have occurred at a worse time. Add to this the role of Pakistan with its own Afghan agenda, and you have a witch’s brew that’s likely to keep the country a boil for years to come.

The U.S. can’t seem to live without Afghanistan

If you don’t include the so-called Indian wars, Afghanistan is America’s longest war. When stripped down to its essence, the only truly vital national interest the U.S. has in that hapless and unfortunate land is ensuring that Afghanistan doesn’t become a base for terror attacks against the homeland. However important and ennobling the plight of Afghan women and the expansion of democracy and human rights, they are not worth the number and amount of American lives and treasure we have invested.

And there are arguably ways to run effective counter-terror operations other than by deploying large numbers of U.S. ground forces in country. Indeed, some might say that 9/11 wasn’t primarily caused by Afghanistan the terrorist sanctuary, but rather by a complete breakdown in homeland security that allowed terrorists to enter the U.S., cross U.S. borders multiple times and train at U.S. flight schools.

And still eighteen years later the arguments in favor of staying in Afghanistan continue. There are strong voices in the military arguing not only that the Taliban cannot be trusted to ensure that al-Qaeda does not make a resurgence but that Afghan security forces simply are not capable of countering a terror threat, even from a rising Islamic State. Others predict civil war; the end of European participation in the coalition; the collapse of the Kabul government; and growing Iranian, Russian and Pakistani influence in wake of a significant withdrawal. And there’s little doubt the U.S. will retain some residual presence for counter-terrorism operations.

Last December, President Trump pledged to pull roughly half of the 14,000 U.S. forces out of Afghanistan. And there’s little doubt he’d want to see a serious reduction before the 2020 election. But little has happened, and I’m betting another December will come and go without any change in that number.

Maybe the U.S.-Taliban talks will produce an accord with a tight withdrawal schedule; maybe there will be cease-fire; maybe the inter Afghan negotiations will succeed in stabilizing the country. That’s a lot of maybes.

The one near-certainty is that this time next year, the U.S. will still have thousands of forces deployed in Afghanistan facing a precarious future. The forever war is still very much forever.

Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author most recently of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (And Doesn’t Want) Another Great President." Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations.