Why Afghanistan peace talks between the Taliban and U.S. have promise — but more potential pitfalls

America's longest war may still begin to wind down on Trump's watch. But probably not just yet.
Image: United States Continues Role in Afghanistan as Troop Numbers Increase
U.S. service members walk off a helicopter on the runway at Camp Bost on Sept. 11, 2017, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.Andrew Renneisen / Getty Images file
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By Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution

The Korean War is sometimes called America’s forgotten war — but that title really now belongs to the Afghanistan conflict, soon to be 18 years old. Several hundred thousand Americans have served there since October 2001; more than 2,000 have died. The war has cost the United States roughly $1 trillion, and the Department of Veterans Affairs’ costs for the injured will add several hundred billion dollars more in the decades to come.

About 15,000 Americans (and another several thousand foreign troops, most from NATO nations) still serve in uniform in Afghanistan, with an estimated additional annual cost to the American taxpayer of some $20 billion. We have been suffering 10 to 20 fatalities annually in recent years, as well.

Do these talks have a serious chance? Alternatively, is apparent progress in the negotiations taking place in Doha, Qatar, a mirage in the Arabian desert?

Afghan forces serve and fight bravely, and lose some 5,000 to 10,000 personnel a year. But they do not appear closer to being able to protect their nation on their own, due to weak institutions, high attrition rates and pervasive corruption in much of the country. Drug production is once again high. Cities and most major roads remain in government hands; much of the rural countryside is contested, and some is even in Taliban hands.

Yet, we don’t talk much about this war on the cable shows or the campaign hustings or within the halls of Congress. Not since 2008, when then-Sen. Barack Obama called the Afghanistan conflict “a war that we have to win” and promised much more resources if elected, has a presidential candidate put it atop the list of national priorities. But after tripling forces there during his first term, Obama grew frustrated, as have most Americans.

Indeed, since roughly 2014, Obama and later President Donald Trump have both frequently contemplated ending the mission outright. But to date, they have always concluded that it would be irresponsible to do so given the likelihood that the government would fall to the same Taliban movement, which more than 20 years ago ruled the country and allowed Osama bin Laden to operate freely — and that continues to attack U.S. forces and their Afghan allies. Not only does al Qaeda remain in remote parts of both Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the newer terror incarnation — the Islamic State militant group — has moved in, with both ready to spread their influence and attack the West.

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Last December, Trump said he would abruptly cut the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan in half over the next few months — contributing to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who thought that decision expected too much too soon from Afghan forces and occurred without consulting our allies. Trump then reconsidered, and is apparently holding off on any decision about whether to end the mission, or even dramatically downsize it, so as to retain maximum leverage in negotiations with the Taliban.

The current peace talks underway are between elements of the Taliban leadership — some of it part of the 1990s regime that ruled the country, some of it younger, most of it unwelcome in Afghanistan and living abroad in Pakistan — and a U.S. delegation led by the Afghan-born former George W. Bush administration official, special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.

Do these talks have a serious chance? Alternatively, is apparent progress in the negotiations taking place in Doha, Qatar, a mirage in the Arabian desert? Worse yet, as former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker has warned, do those discussions risk becoming the equivalent of the Paris talks to end the Vietnam War — providing a fig leaf for U.S. withdrawal and the eventual defeat of its friends and allies on the ground?

Khalilzad has spoken recently of important progress in the talks, which got going in late 2018. Recently, and for the first time, Taliban representatives have been willing to sit down with officials of the Afghan government, after much American cajoling, to begin to break the ice over what will eventually presumably be talks on power sharing between both sides — even if no one is quite willing to use those words yet. Those officials are not formally representing President Ashraf Ghani in actual negotiations just yet; the Taliban have insisted that any such officials come to the table only in their "personal capacities." But according to Khalilzad, this is still a major step forward, and he is probably right.

All the same, there remains a huge distance to traverse in these talks. Since their inception, Washington has insisted that a deal must address four elements in integrated fashion: a permanent cease-fire and end to violence between the Taliban and the Afghan government and U.S.-led foreign coalition; a promise by the Taliban not to allow al Qaeda or ISIS or any other extremist group a sanctuary on Afghan soil from which it can attack the West; serious discussions between the Taliban and the Afghan government; and — if all other conditions are met — an eventual U.S./NATO troop withdrawal. Women’s rights are also a central concern, verging on a fifth requirement even if not officially listed as such.

As Trump, long a skeptic of the Afghan mission, has himself recently underscored, we will need a strong intelligence presence in Afghanistan for some time.

One cannot have an agreement on a withdrawal without resolving the other issues, as well. The Taliban will want the foreign troop exit to be fast and complete; we will want it slower and may wish to preserve a residual presence thereafter.

So far, the Taliban has apparently agreed not to allow ISIS or al Qaeda on Afghan territory. And, naturally enough, it seems prepared to stop the fighting if it gets a deal it likes. So things look OK on two of the four necessary conditions for peace.

The United States has correspondingly indicated a willingness to downsize its military presence over time, and perhaps ultimately end it when conditions are right. But that can’t be done quickly, since we will need to be sure any peace deal is holding, and that extremists are not returning, for some time after any deal. As Trump, long a skeptic of the Afghan mission, has himself recently underscored, we will need a strong intelligence presence in Afghanistan for some time to keep an eye on al Qaeda and ISIS and ensure the deal is sticking — and that implies a certain amount of U.S. military protection for that presence.

But what of that fourth condition — a political deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government? Both the Afghan government and the Taliban want maximum power for themselves, and question the legitimacy of the other. It is doubtful that serious discussions have even begun about how to achieve it.

As retired Army Col. Chris Kolenda and I have previously argued, any acceptable deal will require political power-sharing AND some kind of serious provisions for security for both sides on the ground. Anything else would amount to surrender by one side to the other. That requires a realistic way to preserve the military capabilities of the two sides for a time rather than naively believing they can somehow meld together seamlessly and safely.

What to do? The most promising concept is to begin with a cease-fire of some kind, as was witnessed last summer for several days.

What to do? The most promising concept is to begin with a cease-fire of some kind, as was witnessed last summer for several days, followed by an agreement to tolerate each other’s forces essentially in the positions they now occupy. They would all begin to report to regional commands that had representation from the Taliban, as well as existing Afghan National Defense Security Forces. Over time, in fits and starts, the units could begin to consider undertaking joint patrols, but this could proceed at a pace that was gradual and patient. Perhaps a United Nations peacekeeping operation could monitor such an arrangement to improve trust on all sides.

As for security within cities, where the Afghan police are paramount today, the Taliban political leadership should be allowed small personal protection forces. Over time, as former Taliban are brought into the police and confidence grows, the need for these personal details would decline.

Until these kinds of concepts are agreed to, the only possible deal in Afghanistan will be a bad one — and one America shouldn’t countenance. So far, however, these kinds of ideas are apparently not even being discussed. America's longest war may still begin to wind down on Trump's watch. But alas, probably not just yet.