President Donald Trump’s cancellation of talks with the Taliban on Sept. 9 was a surprising response to what has been a sadly predictable pattern of violence in Afghanistan. In Trump’s own words, negotiations with the insurgents are now “dead,” which can only mean one thing: The war will get much worse before it gets better.
While the president’s move to postpone a meeting with Taliban officials at Camp David, Md., was justified, dissolving the yearlong talks altogether would be a significant mistake. As hard-headed as the Taliban have been in their negotiating positions, there is no substitute for diplomacy. If the United States is to extricate itself militarily in a way that will not produce a full rupture in Afghanistan’s security situation, Washington has no choice but to push forward and find a way to resurrect negotiations from the dead.
We should all remember why these talks began. All combatants in the conflict are exhausted from prosecuting a war that has been stuck in a muddled stalemate for at least the last two years. The Afghan national security forces, still heavily dependent on foreign powers for air support, salaries and logistical assistance, have sustained tens of thousands of casualties over the last five years. The Taliban, despite their propaganda of continuing the jihad until the last foreign boot leaves Afghan soil, wouldn’t have agreed to enter negotiations with the U.S. in the first place if they also weren’t feeling the heat. Washington, meanwhile, has far more significant national security priorities on its plate than remaining bogged down indefinitely in a conflict with no apparent end on the horizon.
The collapse of U.S.-Taliban negotiations will only exacerbate the stalemate at a more violent level. We have already seen an increase in U.S. bombing of strategic Taliban targets. Both parties will increase the pace of their tactical operations, hoping that inflicting more pain on the other side will enhance their leverage in the event talks restart. After Trump decided to walk away, the Taliban have threatened to conduct more attacks across the country, a promise that will surely be fulfilled as millions of Afghans travel to the polls this month to cast their ballots. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia, suggested that the U.S. air campaign will accelerate in the interim. The end result will be a high body count and a lot of munitions expended. But, in the end, the balance of power on the ground will fundamentally remain unchanged.
U.S. and Taliban negotiators have a critical choice to make. They can both walk away from diplomacy completely and press their luck in gaining a measurable advantage on the battlefield. Or they can return to the table as soon as possible in order to finish the work that was started nearly a year ago.
The first option may allow both sides to change the battle geometry over the short term, but at the cost of causing more misery to the people of Afghanistan and delaying the inevitable dialogue Afghans must have with each other if they are able to turn the page on 40 years of war. The longer it takes to return to a diplomatic process, the harder it will be to resolve grievances.
The second option, however, will provide Washington and the Taliban with a second bite at the apple. Assuming the Trump administration can verify and monitor any counterterrorism assurances the Taliban provides, an arrangement trading a U.S. troop withdrawal in return for a sincere break with Afghanistan-based terrorist groups would be worth the political cost of reentering negotiations.
After 18 years of heartache, a counterterrorism-for-withdrawal transaction is likely to be the best deal the United States can get. The intricate details of a comprehensive political agreement — such as how Afghanistan’s political structure is organized; how much power the Taliban will be given in a potential national unity government; how best to integrate Taliban fighters into the mainstream of Afghan society; when and where a ceasefire will occur and how it will be enforced — should be left to the Afghans to resolve on their own.
Trump finds himself at an inflection point. The road he chooses to take will be the difference between continuing an aimless, expensive and senseless war the American people no longer believe in and a pragmatic accord that will finally allow the United States to end the longest conflict in its history. One hopes the president makes the right choice.
Retired Brig. Gen. Don Harvel is a former deputy commander of the Texas Air National Guard and a fellow at the American College of National Security Leaders.