Limit Afghanistan mission to diplomacy
By F. ANDREW TURLEY | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: June 25, 2019
The war in Afghanistan, the longest military engagement in U.S. history, continues to plod along without resolution. Despite our good intentions, good leadership on the ground, and $132 billion in reconstruction assistance, U.S. policy in that country has resulted in few long-term accomplishments. It is time to move forward.
Afghanistan remains well below the bottom half of the human development index. Corruption is systemic across all walks of life, from the beat cop patrolling the streets to the bureaucrat in Kabul. Afghans are so beleaguered by the violence that ordinary civilians are braving the summer temperatures to walk 100 miles in a peace march. In May alone, 1,317 civilians were killed — a 37% increase from the previous month.
U.S. special representative Zalmay Khalilzad is making another 16-day trip to multiple countries to trade ideas and enlist support for an intra-Afghan peace process. “We are moving forward,” Khalilzad wrote in a tweet before his latest consultations. “I am optimistic. Success will require other parties to show flexibility.”
I remain very hopeful and supportive of his efforts but cannot share his optimism. Generating that flexibility, of course, has repeatedly proven to be easier said than done. Pressing its advantage on the battlefield, the Taliban see no reason to discuss politics with an Afghan government they castigate as a foreign puppet and which will change once again after the upcoming September elections. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s calls to the Taliban for a ceasefire during this year’s Eid festivities have fallen on deaf ears.
It’s easy to become discouraged with peace talks moving at a snail’s pace (if they are moving at all). But nobody said striking peace in Afghanistan would be quick. It’s overly simplistic to assume a war approaching its 19th year could be resolved after a few months of talks, despite the good intentions of U.S. negotiators. The truth, however, is that the difficulty of the endeavor is irrelevant. Negotiations with the Taliban are unavoidable if we finally want to effectively conclude U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and see the return of our forces.
There’s no sense in sugar-coating it: At this point, many Americans believe the war has lost its purpose. The current commander, Army Gen. Scott Miller, and his predecessor, Gen. John Nicholson, both of whom I know personally, are smart, dedicated and capable military leaders who truly seek the best possible results for the U.S. and Afghanistan. But we can no longer continue our military involvement in order to establish the perfect conditions for negotiating a lasting peace. Delaying the diplomatic process and extending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan for another few years in the hope of chipping away at the insurgency’s strength and increasing leverage at the table is unsustainable. We’ve tried that policy before and failed to capitalize on it.
Washington, therefore, has only one option: press forward with resolving the crisis through current diplomacy with the Taliban, however imperfect it is.
Let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good. We need an agreement that is good enough, one that can meet America’s core counterterrorism interests in the country and provide Afghan civil authorities with the opportunity to at least figure out their best way forward.
Any agreement must, at a minimum, provide the U.S. with tangible security guarantees regarding Taliban disassociation from al-Qaida and its commitment to fighting Islamic State after a U.S. military withdrawal. This will likely require international monitoring to ensure the Taliban meet their obligations under any agreement — an arrangement Taliban officials may not necessarily reject out of hand if it includes the departure of foreign combat troops from the country. Khalilzad must also send a clear message to the Taliban that the United States retains the right to act against any terrorist group in Afghanistan that presents an imminent threat to the American people. Self-defense is non-negotiable.
While the exact contours of Afghanistan’s political system are for the Afghans themselves to decide, Washington should have no reservations in expressing its position. The civil and political rights of all Afghans, regardless of gender, ethnicity, tribe or political ideology, should be accorded equal protection under the rule of law. The Afghan people will not support a return to the pre-2001 status quo.
The American people are no longer interested in Afghanistan, nor do they support a continuation of a war that has killed over 2,400 American soldiers, wounded tens of thousands of others, and cost over $740 billion. In the 18th year of the conflict, the United States has a weak hand. It must salvage what it can get at the peace table and remove itself from this conflict once and for all.
Retired Maj. Gen. F. Andrew Turley served in a wide variety of active duty, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard judge advocate positions. He also served as a senior executive in the Air Force General Counsel’s Office, general counsel for a small Defense Department agency, and counsel in the George W. Bush White House. He is a fellow at the American College of National Security Leaders.