The likelihood of ‘peace’ in Afghanistan is slim to none

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A few days ago Secretary of State Pompeo apparently declined to sign the proposed Afghan peace deal, to the great consternation of some. In many ways, it really doesn’t matter. Whether U.S. Envoy Zalmay Khalilizad signs the deal, or someone else does, or its negotiations continue, Afghanistan will not see peace. And Americans will continue to be targets.

Afghanistan’s stability, and keeping U.S interests safe from threats emanating from there, only in small part would be lessened by an executed agreement. In fact, despite all the energy and hype, the agreement does not even deal with a number of dangers — including several more significant to the safety of U.S. interests than is the Taliban.  

These issues have received inadequate attention. In many respects, they are at least as important — or more so — to informed decision-making about what our presence in Afghanistan should be. They will be particularly important if we achieve an understanding with the Taliban and then Americans ask themselves whether we are more or less safe, when the deal is done.

It’s time for some straight talk.  

Many have offered President Trump excellent suggestions on what a good deal should include, along with informed advice for his troop decision-making. But reality often is not what we would hope for: the Talib are likely to reject most of what is proposed — and we will end up with an agreement anyway. Realistically, even with a signed accord, violence will continue in Afghanistan. There will be no “peace,” no sustainable cease-fire.  

Even assuming the U.S. is negotiating with Taliban representatives who are willing and able to meet their commitments (and there is serious doubt they can), the significant surge in violence on multiple fronts in the past few weeks clearly demonstrates that either the negotiators deep down believe suicide bombings and horrific assaults are legitimate bargaining tools, or “rogue” Taliban elements are killing foreign troops and innocents to signal their independence and convey dissatisfaction with the peace process.  

Everyone assumes that post-agreement, the Taliban immediately will confront the government, resulting in a weakened, preoccupied state. Although the proposed deal apparently seeks Taliban agreement to help the U.S. with threats posed by the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan, there appear to have been few discussions about the equally lethal Haqqani Network (HQN) and al Qaeda (AQ) — just two of the terrorist organizations not included in the bargain as far as we know.  

These and others will vie for territory and power with renewed vigor once the U.S. is considered inconsequential on the ground. HQN and AQ have been responsible for horrific assaults and loss of American lives. And there are few impediments to either organization exporting their expertise to mount deadly operations here at home. In fact, AQ is quietly waiting for its chance. Reliable sources report that in Afghanistan’s western provinces, there are more AQ troops sent to Iran for medical care than ever before. 

And then there is Iran. The Taliban may be our current security focus, but the U.S. has been strangely unwilling to recognize and confront the mullahs’ territorial desires and growing malign influence in Afghanistan. Instead, to the extent we worry about the influence of neighbors, we focus our efforts on Pakistan’s support to HQN, the Taliban and other Pashtun insurgents. Iran in Afghanistan poses a significant threat to U.S. interests, however, and has been busy in Afghan politics and supporting terrorists literally since we Americans moved in (and, arguably, before that, when the Russians moved out).  

One of the biggest mistakes made by the Clinton and Obama administrations was to extend an olive branch to Iran while its support to terrorism increased in the region. Having housed the bin Laden family and formed an alliance with AQ years ago, Tehran likely is looking at how best to capitalize on its AQ partnership in Afghanistan. What a significant psychological blow it will be if the Iran-AQ alliance again from there strikes the U.S. at home or abroad.  

As if this were not enough for a post-agreement Afghan government to deal with, many analysts predict that if the U.S. no longer plays a key security role, civil war is likely. Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was such a charismatic leader and commander that Osama bin Laden had him killed, is credited with saying that in order for Afghanistan to choose its future, Afghans must have their civil war. A civil war combined with terrorist organizations fighting for power and territory will overwhelm, and possibly disintegrate, Afghan forces. If that happens, it will greatly reduce U.S. ability to identify potential threats to us.  

Finally, our near singular focus on the agreement with the Taliban as a means of permitting a reduction in our presence ignores a critical strategic issue. Afghanistan’s most likely change agents — its women and educated youth — will be the first to be targeted by the Taliban. 

Americans should understand that even with an agreement and cease-fire with the Taliban, the likelihood of “peace” in Afghanistan is slim to none. President Trump is right to focus on what realistically can be accomplished and the cost to Americans of any real change. Keeping the current number of troops in Afghanistan, with escalating violence, is unacceptable for many reasons, including that we simply cannot effect change or provide sufficient security for our efforts with the resources currently applied. 

Regardless of any deal we get, we need to stop focusing on troop numbers and instead, focus on capability. We must carefully craft a strategy with robust counterterrorism and intelligence operations to achieve our most important goal — to foresee and forestall an attack on the U.S homeland. 

Mary Beth Long is former assistant secretary for international security affairs at the U.S. Department of Defense and chair of NATO’s High Level Group, as well as a former CIA case officer. She is co-founder of Global Alliance Advisors LLC. Follow her on Twitter @LongDefense.

Tags Afghan peace agreement Afghanistan Al Qaeda Donald Trump Taliban terrorist attacks

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