Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and professor of practice at Arizona State University. He has reported from Afghanistan for two and a half decades and is the co-editor of “Talibanistan: Negotiating the Borders Between Terror, Politics, and Religion.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own; view more opinion at CNN.
Kabul is a city on edge. Twenty-foot-high concrete blast walls surround the “Green Zone,” sheltering the US embassy and key Afghan government buildings.
It is the one of the largest American embassies in the world, yet the US officials working there rarely leave the Green Zone, and if they do, it is by helicopter.
By contrast, in December the Iraqi government began taking down the walls around the Green Zone in Baghdad because the security situation has markedly improved there.
Several years ago, westerners could live and work in Kabul with little cause for fear, and there was even a bustling restaurant scene. That sense of security has gone now because of the Taliban campaign of bombings in the capital and their targeted kidnappings of foreigners. That has helped to contribute to a sharp drop in foreign direct investment in Afghanistan in recent years, according to World Bank data.
The Taliban are at their strongest since their regime fell in the months after the 9/11 attacks. According to a US government assessment released last month, the Afghan government controls around two-thirds of the population and the Taliban 10%. The rest of the population is contested between the government and the Taliban.
ISIS and al Qaeda both now have footholds in Afghanistan.
That is the backdrop for the American talks with the Taliban which began in earnest in July.
These talks are directly between the US and the Taliban, long a key demand of the Taliban. They revile the Afghan government as a puppet of the United States and have called for the removal of all American troops. There are presently some 14,000 US military personnel in the country.
Seven months after the talks began between the US and the Taliban, the Afghan government remains excluded from them despite the fact that their outcome could deeply affect the Afghan people that it represents.
So, Afghans are asking: Are the US-Taliban talks a prelude to peace, or a betrayal of a US ally in which the terms of their surrender to the Taliban are being discussed without them?
The veteran American diplomat, Ryan Crocker, certainly thinks it’s the latter. Under the self-explanatory headline, “I was ambassador to Afghanistan. This deal is a surrender,” Crocker, in the Washington Post, compared the negotiations with the Taliban “to the Paris peace talks during the Vietnam War. Then, as now, it was clear that by going to the table we were surrendering; we were just negotiating the terms of our surrender.”
The Paris peace deal was followed by the eventual collapse of the South Vietnamese government, which had been America’s ally, and to the unification of the country under North Vietnam’s communist leader, Ho Chi Minh.
Crisis of confidence
Discussion of a withdrawal of US troops has created a crisis of confidence among the many Afghans who have benefitted from the post-Taliban era. The beneficiaries of that era, now in its 18th year, include women and ethnic minorities such as the Hazaras as well as the new millennial generation of urban Afghans who were children when the Taliban were in power and have no nostalgia for an era when the country was taken back to the Middle Ages.
A senior Afghan female official described the US-Taliban talks to me as a “betrayal.”
A common refrain that I also heard from Afghans: Why was the US bothering with the pretense of negotiating with the Taliban if it was all along intent on heading for the exits? “If you are gonna leave, just leave. We will have to fight when you are gone anyway,” they said.
Then there is the demonstration effect. As they try and set the terms for an American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban can now claim that they have defeated two superpowers, first the Soviets and now the Americans, a claim that is sure to inspire jihadist groups around the world.
Already the purported American “defeat” in Afghanistan has inspired the suicide bomber who killed 37 Indian soldiers in Indian-held Kashmir earlier this month, the most lethal attack in Kashmir for many years. Before the operation the bomber recorded a “martyrdom” video in which he said he was inspired to carry out the attack by the news of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Zalmay Khalilzad, Trump’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, is leading the talks on the American side. Following a marathon six-days of discussions between American diplomats and the Taliban in the Qatari capital, Doha, in late January Khalilzad tweeted, “Meetings here were more productive than they have been in the past. We made significant progress on vital issues.”
That tweet precipitated a flurry of new stories about a potential peace deal.
Khalilzad also tweeted that he had briefed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani “on the progress we have made.”
On Tuesday Khalilzad tweeted that he met in Doha with Mullah Baradar, one of the founders of the Taliban as the US government talks with the Taliban continue.
President Ghani and Khalilzad have a five-decade relationship that stretches back to when they were both classmates at the American University in Beirut. They have quite different styles, crystallized in the books they each have written.
Ghani co-wrote “Fixing Failed States” with development expert Clare Lockhart, a technocratic account of how to fix countries such as Afghanistan, while Khalilzad wrote “The Envoy,” an account of his many years as a diplomat working at the highest levels of the US government. If Ghani is the workaholic technocrat, Khalilzad is the wheeler dealer looking to work out an arrangement.
While it’s not known whether Khalilzad has spoken to President Trump directly about his negotiations with the Taliban, his boss is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and they both seem to be trying to fulfill a campaign promise by Trump that the United States should extricate itself from its expensive foreign wars.
A similar impetus can be seen behind the precipitous drawdown of US troops in Syria, which CENTCOM Commander General Joseph Votel told CNN’s Barbara Starr this month he would have advised against given the fact that ISIS is not defeated.
The “framework” for a possible peace agreement that Khalilzad has negotiated is that the Taliban have agreed that they will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a launching pad for attacks by international terrorist groups such as al Qaeda.
This is a demand that the United States has made for the past two decades since al Qaeda bombed two US embassies in Africa in August 1998, killing more than two hundred people, attacks that the group carried out when it was based in Afghanistan. The Taliban continued to shelter Osama bin Laden after those bombings and even as he was planning the far more lethal 9/11 attacks. After 9/11, the Taliban then refused to hand bin Laden over to the United States and the war began.
In return for the Taliban pledge that they will no longer provide a safe haven to international terrorist groups, US forces would withdraw from Afghanistan, ending America’s longest war.
Also, there are discussions between the Taliban and US officials of a possible ceasefire, as well as of direct negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, though the Taliban reportedly has not agreed to either of these so far.
Khalilzad has said publicly that he hopes the negotiations will wind up before the key Afghan presidential election five months from now.
This seems a tad optimistic since peace negotiations to end a civil war typically take many years. The British negotiated with the IRA for two decades before there was a peace deal in Northern Ireland.
But the bigger issue is that the Taliban are seemingly in no mood for any kind of real compromise. The lead Taliban negotiator, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, said in an interview with a Pashtu language website earlier this month that the Taliban will not negotiate with the Afghan government until the full withdrawal of foreign forces, including all troops, advisors and contractors.
Stanekzai also said that the Taliban plans to abolish the Afghan army and that the Afghan constitution will be amended and based on their version of Sharia law.
In other words, following the withdrawal of all US forces, the Taliban wants the Afghan government to unilaterally disarm and they will then write a new constitution they regard as sufficiently Islamic.
The Afghan constitution ratified in 2004 guarantees the rights of women to work and girls to be educated. Given the Taliban’s dismal track record about the rights of women and girls, it’s hard to believe that these rights wouldn’t be curtailed or even abolished in a future Taliban utopia.
Adding to the anxiety that many Afghans have was the meeting in Moscow on February 5 between the Taliban and leading Afghan politicians such as former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Again, the Afghan government played no role in those discussions.
One of the Afghan delegates at the Moscow meeting told me that the mood of the Taliban there was “victorious.”
Nothing of course would give the former KGB officer, Russian President Vladimir Putin, greater satisfaction than handing the United States a bloody nose in Afghanistan just as the US-backed Afghan guerillas did to the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
What can be done?
The Afghan government has had no success at getting a seat at the table during the past seven months of negotiations between the US and the Taliban. In order to wrest back some control of the initiative President Ghani earlier this month called for a consultative loya jirga, a traditional Afghan tribal council, to discuss the talks with the Taliban.
This seems to be an attempt to show that Afghans want to decide their own fate rather than have it negotiated over their heads between the Taliban and the United States.
Ghani has also offered in a private letter to Trump to cut costs for the US military in Afghanistan.
Gianni Koskinas, a former Special Operations Air Force colonel and New America senior fellow who deployed extensively in Afghanistan while in uniform and who has lived in Kabul since 2011, says there are also plenty of savings that could be made by reducing the size of the American “footprint” in Afghanistan. Every American soldier is estimated to cost more than a million dollars a year when deployed in Afghanistan.
With only a small fraction of the 14,000 American troops ever operating outside their bases, Koskinas estimates that 8,000 troops would be more than enough to sustain counterterrorism operations and the crucial US “advise and assist” mission to key components of the Afghan National Security Forces such as the Air Force and Special Forces. Koskinas argues that the drawdown should focus mostly on American conventional forces that deliver little in the current environment in Afghanistan.
Also “winning” the war in Afghanistan is simply the wrong frame to be looking at the issue. The United States is there to manage and contain the threat from international terrorist groups based in the region. This doesn’t require a large force.
As the military historian and CNN contributor Max Boot has pointed out, the annual toll taken by US military training accidents is now four times larger than American combat losses in Afghanistan.
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What it does require is a long-term commitment to Afghanistan of the kind that President Trump promised when he announced his new Afghanistan strategy in a speech on August 21, 2017, at Fort Meyer in Virginia. Wouldn’t it be nice if he kept that promise?