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The U.S. Shouldn’t Stumble Out of Afghanistan
Letting the country unravel isn't an exit strategy.
As the United States seeks to finalize a deal with the Taliban, it must reconcile two discordant truths: One is that the United States grievously erred in thinking it could defeat an insurgency in Afghanistan and should have negotiated its military withdrawal much sooner, and the other is that the deal it negotiates now might increase rather than lessen the violence.
Between those two truths is a narrow space in which the U.S. government could both end its longest war and avoid leaving an intensified civil war in its wake. Whether the expected deal accomplishes those objectives will depend on the details.
Overshadowing the talks is Washington’s now evident intent to pull out of Afghanistan. The political logic of U.S. withdrawal was ripening well before candidate Donald Trump broadcast his desire for it. The expense and challenges of nation building in one of the world’s poorest and weakest states—and the lack of direct security threats to the United States once al Qaeda was decimated—meant that one day this thought would crystallize in Washington: What are we still doing there? The U.S. interest in destroying al Qaeda was always clear; the interest in destroying its Taliban hosts was always attenuated.
But just because U.S. troops won’t and shouldn’t stay forever doesn’t mean the Trump administration should be cavalier about how it leaves. The U.S. government should have negotiated with the Taliban at the apex of its leverage, when it had 100,000 troops in the country. It should have forestalled the insurgency’s rise in the first place by encouraging the Taliban’s political integration at their weakest, in the first few years after 9/11. But it did neither. With U.S. forces reduced to some 14,000 now, after a dip to around 8,000 two years ago, U.S. leverage has been a wasting asset year on year. Nevertheless, neither U.S. nor Afghan interests would be served by letting Afghanistan fall apart on the way out the door.
Regardless of how skillfully the United States negotiates, Afghanistan might descend into a wider and protracted civil war after the U.S. withdrawal. The conflict is already a bloody stalemate, with the Taliban having proved their staying power while enjoying the tactical advantages of an insurgency that doesn’t need to try to hold the entire country. In 2018, Afghanistan was already the world’s deadliest conflict.
But U.S. backing for the government in Kabul and its security forces at least has given anti-Taliban political and ethnic factions a reason to stick together over the last two decades. It’s not difficult to imagine retraction of U.S. financial and military backing—unless a political accommodation among all the factions and the Taliban is reached—leading to a 1990s-style, many-sided civil war with a near-vacuum of governance. That was what happened after the U.S. government flooded Afghanistan with arms to fight the Soviet Union during the 1980s and then the big powers withdrew.
Achieving an Afghan political settlement will be arduous. Will the Taliban, which claim not to seek a monopoly on power, accept electoral democracy? If not, how will political inclusiveness be achieved? Will the Taliban—an “emirate” when they governed—insist on having an amir, which is what they call their leader? What will his role be? The Taliban have never suggested they envision transforming into a political party, but, if not, what will they be in an Afghanistan at peace? The Taliban have only ever governed Afghanistan unilaterally or sought to overturn the political order. Whether there are answers that will sufficiently satisfy many Afghans will have to be tested in talks.
At the same time, the actions of regional powers surrounding Afghanistan, as so often happens, threaten to disrupt prospects for stability. Most recently, the crisis in Kashmir has led to speculation that Pakistan may try to use its cooperation with the U.S. government on the Afghan peace process as leverage to get Washington to wade into the dispute over the contested territory with India.
On the flip side, one of a number of reasons suggested for the timing of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s move to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy was concern that a settlement in Afghanistan might translate into heightened focus by some militant groups on Kashmir. Even the Taliban’s leaders were worried; a Taliban spokesman issued a statement on Aug. 8 wagging a finger at South Asia’s two nuclear powers by rejecting linkage of Kashmir to Afghanistan and saying the latter should not be “turned into the theater of competition between other countries.”
Whether Pakistan actually would try to scuttle the Afghanistan talks over Kashmir isn’t so likely, however. True, Islamabad has limited options for trying to get others to bring pressure to bear on India, and Washington seems very much to want an Afghan deal. But Pakistan stands to benefit from the peace process as it is now proceeding both because its long-standing Taliban clients are gaining ground in the talks and because Islamabad will get some credit if the result is to Washington’s liking.
Assuming the negotiating process continues to move forward, the next U.S. moves could either moderate the risk of wider war and the challenge of reaching a political settlement or it could worsen both.
The United States made a large—but, given its diminished leverage, necessary—concession to the Taliban by dealing with them first and without the Kabul government’s participation on military withdrawal, as the Taliban had insisted for years. Withdrawal in exchange for Taliban assurances that they will satisfy U.S. counterterrorism concerns are the twin topics at the center of the talks in Doha, Qatar. This means the Taliban will enter subsequent talks among Afghans having already achieved their main goal and with their stature and bargaining position thereby enhanced. The deal reached in Doha will be a genuine achievement if it opens a peace process among Afghans without going too far in undercutting Kabul’s bargaining position.
The U.S. government should not lose patience before an Afghan political settlement is achieved. Even if a U.S.-Taliban deal is announced, as expected, in the coming days, it will have taken nearly a year of concerted diplomacy. This first stage of deal-making is the easy part; determining how to structure Afghan political and security power-sharing will be much harder.
A U.S.-Taliban deal will have a better chance of leading to peace if it ties the phasing and pace of military withdrawal to specific milestones in an Afghan peace process, including adoption of a revised constitution with power-sharing features and subsequent elections. Tying a withdrawal to talking but not to results would not be good enough. To mitigate the risk that Afghans who don’t want to compromise stall the talks, U.S. diplomats will need to rally regional powers and collectively apply their political muscle to keep the process on track.
The United States can also tie its financial support to reaching an Afghan settlement. Foreign donors finance about half of the Afghan government’s budget, not including off-budget donor support for security forces, making the current regime exceptionally aid-dependent. And the Taliban have indicated that, as part of a post-conflict government, they would prefer continued support to again managing an impoverished pariah state.
The deal should not signal U.S. intent to deliberately unwind the political order it helped establish prior to agreement on a replacement. Statements such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s comment that the U.S. government wants to see an Afghan political agreement concluded before the scheduled Sept. 28 presidential elections have fed speculation that the United States intends to cancel those elections and instead install an interim regime composed of Afghan political notables, potentially including the Taliban.
Any agreement reached so quickly can only kick all the hard questions down the road. Proceeding with inevitably messy elections while continuing talks is the least bad option. As is usually the case in peace processes, once a settlement is agreed, an interim government will be needed for a transitional implementation period. But tossing out the current political system before determining what comes next would magnify uncertainty and further weaken the Afghan state.
Unless the United States preserves some of its remaining leverage—its troops and its spending—to see out the negotiation of an Afghan political settlement, its separate peace with the Taliban will end the 18-year U.S. intervention but may end with no peace at all.