Make exit plan the priority in Afghanistan

By JERROD A. LABER | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: July 11, 2019

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad expressed significant optimism about the progress made in talks with the Taliban this past weekend, saying the current round of negotiations — aimed at ending the Afghanistan War — have been “the most productive” yet. The greatest challenge, he said, has been “to get a framework agreed to that isn’t just a withdrawal agreement,” but also a political road map to ensure “that we can leave a good legacy behind with a government and political order that Afghans agree to.”

While we should wish the Afghans well — negotiation goals like a cease-fire and intra-Afghan dialogue are admirable — these talks are not related to U.S. security and should not be used as a pretext to slow U.S. withdrawal from this conflict. President Donald Trump’s campaign-trail instincts on leaving Afghanistan were correct: It’s been nearly 18 years, and little has been accomplished. The U.S. is the most powerful country in the world — it doesn’t need any cooperation from the Taliban for its security. Tying a withdrawal to a successful political resolution paves the way for a stalled exit, given that prospects for actual, long-term peace in Afghanistan remain poor.

Chaining a U.S. withdrawal to the success of an intra-Afghan dialogue is a reckless decision precisely because Afghanistan’s political future is so precarious. The Taliban have spent years regaining power, controlling and contesting more and more territory. Increased pressure by the U.S. and NATO has done nothing to weaken their resolve — the longer the U.S. stays in Afghanistan, the weaker our hand and the stronger the Taliban’s.

And the Afghan dialogue now taking place is not between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The Taliban don’t recognize the U.S.-backed government in Kabul as legitimate and are speaking to its delegations purely as fellow Afghans with no official authority. Though the Taliban have expressed some openness to more inclusive political arrangements, the sincerity of their intentions are unclear.

As Ashley Jackson, a research associate at the Overseas Development Institute, wrote in Foreign Policy, Taliban foot soldiers and commanders see no point in talking with the Afghan government because they consider it a U.S. puppet: “If the United States stops their support to the government for even a month, we would be able to take all of Afghanistan,” one Taliban commander said. Realistically, the Taliban will only accept peace on their own terms, which will likely include retention of control over current territories and even expansion to contested areas.

Meanwhile, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has continually demanded the Taliban talk to his government. He is running for re-election in the presidential contests scheduled to take place in September, and he is adamant that these elections will “make sure those negotiating across the table from the Taliban have a strong mandate to carry out any agreement they reach.”

But the Afghan electoral system is a wreck. Ghani’s 2014 victory was rife with allegations of systemic fraud, causing immense political and civil strife. Add to that the kleptocratic nature of the Afghan government, which fails to provide even the most basic services while elites line their pockets, and you find that the mandate for which Ghani is searching likely doesn’t exist.

Let’s assume a deal is struck, and it carves out some space for the current Afghan government to continue to exist in some form. Expect the Taliban to break the terms of the agreement. If that happens, the U.S. should not stall its proposed exit or even re-escalate in the event the Taliban proves themselves an unreliable partner.

For this reason, Khalilzad’s insistence on getting a political road map out of these talks is worrisome. It could be used as a pretext to indefinitely delay U.S. exit. All we need in Afghanistan is a government that is not a threat to the U.S. — the rest should be left up to the Afghans. The Taliban are an inherently parochial group that poses no threat to American security, and we can monitor and counter anti-American terror threats anywhere in the world without a permanent military presence occupying Afghanistan. Staying is just political insurance, not based on a necessary or viable strategy.

America has already spent too much blood and treasure in Afghanistan. The only priority now should be a military exit to stop the bleeding on U.S. taxpayers and servicemembers (literally). Everything else concerning the internal Afghan political order is out of our hands.

Jerrod A. Laber is a fellow at Defense Priorities, and a senior contributor for Young Voices.

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