Editor’s Note: Anish Goel is a senior South Asia fellow at New America. He previously served in the White House’s National Security Council as senior director for South Asia. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Here in the 17th year of American conflict in Afghanistan, and in the 39th year overall of nearly continuous strife there, everyone seems to be grasping for solutions to end the misery. The Americans are asking the Afghans to do more to secure the stability of the country, while asking the Taliban to do less to undermine it.
It seems that the Pakistanis are seeking the exact opposite, while the Afghans are looking for stability, afraid that the Americans might leave. The Taliban ostensibly is looking for instability, afraid that the Americans might stay. And everyone is asking for reconciliation talks, yet somehow, these talks remain frustratingly elusive.
Underneath the din – all the arguments about troop numbers and war strategy, all the discussions of who’s in cahoots with whom and how much it is all going to cost – lies only one inescapable truth: For the United States, the last remaining national security objective is to prevent the country from ever again becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups bent on attacking the homeland.
All other arguments and objectives for staying, such as establishing a Western-style democracy, developing Afghanistan’s hobbling economy, and improving the lives of the Afghan people, are both laudable and important. But none of them alone can justify the continued commitment of US troops and morale.
While the threat of such an attack on the United States is not unique to Afghanistan – and if we’re being honest, we should recognize that the threat from Afghanistan has diminished – the fact remains that the attacks on September 11 emanated from this region. So there is a special obligation for the United States to preclude the recurrence of such a scenario. As minimal as the threat may be currently, it needs to be fully extinguished and never allowed to flicker again.
If we assume that the United States will not stay in Afghanistan forever, then there are only two pathways to ensuring that terrorist safe havens are not re-established in Afghanistan: The Afghan government must become strong and stable enough to fully patrol and effectively control the country, thereby preventing safe havens for terrorist groups from forming, or the Taliban must lose interest in establishing these safe havens in the first place. Even after all these years, neither scenario elicits hope.
For the better part of the last decade, the United States has been trying furiously to achieve the first goal while giving only cursory effort to the second. The nitty-gritty details may differ, but both the Obama and Trump administrations have focused efforts on training and building the Afghan security forces to create political space for an eventual reconciliation dialogue. However, after many false starts, it would be prudent to take a closer look at what is actually realistic and feasible.
Despite the infusion of $70 billion by the United States to train and equip Afghan security forces, the Taliban remain in control of or exert influence in over 40% of Afghan districts. Not only has this number not shrunk in recent years, but it has actually grown, meaning that Afghan forces have thus far simply been unable to keep up with their Taliban adversaries.
To achieve the goal of fully patrolling and controlling the whole country, the Afghan national security forces need the willingness and the capacity to do so. The United States can help with the capacity. But with willingness, it unfortunately cannot. Ever since the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan has struggled to have a strong central government with influence over all of its territory. It takes a special kind of optimism to believe it can be achieved in a few short years.
While the United States should not give up on its goal of developing a fully capable Afghan fighting force, it is prudent to assume that it may take longer than the nation is able to ultimately stomach. Last year, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction issued an eye-popping and depressing report on just how far from this goal we are.
While President Trump, in his own words, was persuaded to not pull out of Afghanistan, we may next have a president who won’t be. Consequently, it remains a realistic possibility that the United States will ultimately pull out of Afghanistan before the Afghans are capable of fully securing their own country. In such a scenario, our fate then rests on whether the Taliban seeks to re-establish safe havens in the areas it controls.
Talking to the Taliban
Talking to the Taliban is hard for many Americans to fathom. Given that the United States originally invaded Afghanistan with the express purpose of driving the Taliban from power, it is anathema to now think of pushing them to the negotiating table over the future of the country as a victory.
But victory is a nebulous concept. And just as the objectives of the United States have evolved over the last 16 years, so too have the Taliban’s. As Seth Jones writes in his recent Foreign Affairs article, the Taliban is a different organization today than it was when the US invaded. Its structure has changed, its leaders have changed, and in fact its whole philosophy may be changed. Jones indicates that after many recent setbacks, it may no longer have the ability to take over urban areas, let alone rule the entire country. For all of its issues, the presence of the United States has prevented the Taliban from reassuming power in Afghanistan.
All of this leads us to the conclusion that negotiating a political settlement that involves the Taliban, including extracting a commitment that no Afghan territory will be used as a safe haven, is the only way out. The Afghan government must remain in the lead on such talks – after all, they will have to enforce whatever agreement is ultimately reached – but their leverage flows almost entirely from the support and presence of the United States.
Other regional actors, who are exerting enormous influence over events in the country, must also be brought into the fold, for any of them could undermine the final settlement if they are left on the outside looking in. Ultimately, for the talks to be successful, the United States needs to refocus its entire presence on establishing and supporting them.
Obstacles to negotiations
Decades of war have whetted the appetites on all sides – and the relevant country governments have all been ready for several years now. There are significant obstacles to such talks, of course – not the least being the significant bloodshed exacted by the Taliban throughout Afghanistan in recent weeks, demonstrating the Taliban’s utter lack of respect for the sanctity of life.
But without the possibility of a political settlement, the Taliban have no incentive to ease their attacks. In the current stalemate, they have nothing to lose by continuing their murderous campaign.
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This brings us to the curious development of the last few weeks: The Taliban itself has called on the United States to begin peace talks and sent signals that it is ready to engage in a dialogue. While it is always nearly impossible to decipher the logic of the Taliban, this could be a sign that they see no path to success, however they define it, which has driven them to seek other solutions.
The long-held axiom in peace negotiations is that no one negotiates when they think they are going to win the war. By offering to engage in talks, the Taliban may have given us a window into their mindset, and they have most assuredly given us an opening. The United States should take advantage of it.