Elephants in the Room
The United States Needs an Afghanistan Exit Strategy
Washington should hand over U.S. military and political roles to other countries, including China.
During a stop in San Diego last month, Gen. Robert Neller, the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, made a troubling and dangerously flawed comparison when speaking about the endgame in Afghanistan. “After a long war—World War II—we’re still in Japan and we’re still in Germany,” he said.
Must the United States maintain a permanent presence in Afghanistan?
The war in Afghanistan has already gone on 11 years longer than World War II. And whereas Germany and Japan were both modern industrial nations with their own histories of democracy when that war started and have since become close allies, Afghanistan, still beset by conflict, has never really been anything more than a collection of ethnic clans only loosely bound together by nationhood—where the fragments often command a greater allegiance from individual citizens than the whole.
I rarely find a reason to agree with U.S. President Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, his former chief strategist, but it is possible that their initial instincts on Afghanistan were right: The United States may have unlearned the lessons of Vietnam too well. The military seems to have forgotten that insurgents do not have to win—they only need to not lose until the foreigners give in to pressure and leave.
The U.S. Defense Department’s own metrics suggest that Afghanistan’s insurgents are nowhere near losing. The percentage of the country’s 407 districts under government control has decreased from 66 percent in May 2016 to 56 percent in May of this year. Over the same two-year period, the number of areas under Taliban or insurgent control has risen, as did the number of districts considered “contested,” according to an audit by the Pentagon’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
Afghanistan is as much the graveyard of empires as it ever was. But U.S. civilian and military leaders routinely claim that they are capable of winning the war there. That wishful thinking aside, the argument against withdrawing U.S. forces boils down to inertia. As in Vietnam, the United States is trapped. It can’t win, yet it can’t leave for fear that the government in Kabul would collapse and Afghanistan could once again become an oasis for terrorists who threaten the United States.
So the ultimate question is: Why is 2018 different from 2001, when the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda triggered the U.S. military response? It’s a fair question. The risks of collapse and chaos are impossible to rule out. But there is reason to believe that the realities on the ground—exhaustion after years of war, a more politically sophisticated Taliban, and a multiplicity of competing jihadi groups—have changed and that a different outcome is now possible. And other countries, including China, could be convinced to take on a greater role in assuring Afghanistan’s future.
It is not hard to understand why the idea that the United States can stay in Afghanistan and win seems to hold widespread appeal. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have defined the careers of an entire generation of the U.S. military. From my time in government, I can recognize the stubborn dedication to a task not yet completed and the impact of bureaucratic inertia. Taken together, these elements are a major factor in the failure of the United States to move past the sunk costs rationale for continuing the war in Afghanistan, despite the tragic toll, which will only increase the longer the United States refuses to change course.
The U.S. presence in Afghanistan safeguards two vital interests: the need to secure Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and to eliminate terrorist safe havens. But the United States could ensure those interests without staying in Afghanistan forever. However, the country would need to change its mindset in order to both get out and have a chance of avoiding a much-feared collapse in Kabul, which would lead to Afghanistan becoming a jihadi playground.
Any plausible exit strategy must involve handing over U.S. military and political roles to the countries most directly impacted by turmoil in Afghanistan. First on that list is China, which has large economic and counterterrorism interests at stake. Washington should signal its intent to withdraw troops and quietly begin a dialogue with Beijing to coordinate an exit that minimizes the possibility of a political-military vacuum. China prefers to free-ride on the United States but, faced with the reality of U.S. withdrawal, could assemble a group committed to securing Afghanistan—including Russia, India, Pakistan, and Iran—operating under a U.N. Security Council mandate.
Then, under U.N. auspices, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the loose Eurasian alliance aimed at counterterrorism and regional cooperation, perhaps in cooperation with NATO, could convene a peace conference in Geneva. The participants would primarily focus on setting the terms and conditions for the Taliban to take on a primary position in a national unity government—on the condition that it holds free and fair elections within 12 to 18 months of assuming power.
In return, a Taliban-majority government would have to agree to deny safe haven to the Islamic State or other Islamist militant groups; to support the inclusion of major non-Pashtun ethnic groups (Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Turkmen) in a de facto federal system that grants autonomy to non-Pashtun districts; and to solemnly promise to protect women’s rights, especially to education and to participation in social life—something the Taliban now claim to accept, although the facts on the ground tell a different story.
One major incentive for the Taliban would be the creation of a $25 billion multiyear reconstruction fund jointly managed by the Asian Development Bank and Beijing’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The fund would operate on principles similar to those of the U.S. Millennium Challenge account created by the George W. Bush administration; grants and loans offered through the fund would require fully vetted business plans. And assistance would be conditioned on the Taliban abiding by the terms of the peace accord: that is, no safe havens for terrorists and political tolerance.
There is reason to think this exit strategy is plausible. China, through its massive Belt and Road development strategy and long-standing alliance with Pakistan, has far more leverage with Islamabad than the United States does. Beyond its large-scale investments in Afghan mining, China’s counterterrorism policies also overlap with the United States’. Thus, U.S.-Chinese counterterrorism cooperation in both Afghanistan and in the greater Middle East could continue. It might even be a tonic for the otherwise volatile relationship between the two countries.
It is worth asking why the Taliban would comply with this plan. First, depleted blood and treasure is the price it has paid for allowing al Qaeda a safe haven. Moreover, its evolution from an insurgency tasked with destruction to a governing political party will undoubtedly change its decision-making calculus. In 2018, even a Taliban regime in Afghanistan would have little incentive to open the country’s doors to the Islamic State or any of a plethora of Islamist militant groups to undo a fragile peace. Indeed, the political incentive of becoming not only a legitimate political party but the dominant one should not be underestimated, especially in combination with the economic benefits such an agreement would unlock.
Meanwhile, with the Taliban as the dominant power in Kabul, Islamabad may find reason to be a more cooperative member of the negotiating team. Chinese pressure could reinforce the tilt.
I do not suggest this set of options lightly. But it offers a path to an outcome that is arguably the least bad in a spectrum of very bad choices.
The United States faces enormous global and regional strategic challenges from China and Russia from which it cannot afford to be distracted by continuing its presence in Afghanistan. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump pushed for a radical rethink of this endless and unwinnable war. His instincts were right on this. A pragmatic, workable exit strategy from Afghanistan is the least dishonorable way for the United States to turn the page and step out of the graveyard that, from the time of Alexander, has buried empires.