Vigilance doesn’t require keeping GIs in Afghanistan
By ROBERT J. FELDERMAN | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: August 23, 2019
The next several weeks could very well determine whether the United States and the Taliban come to an arrangement on a diplomatic settlement. Thirteen months after the Trump administration initiated direct talks with the insurgency, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has presented a plan to President Donald Trump that would include a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in return for several Taliban concessions, the most important being a commitment to ensure terrorist groups don’t use Afghan soil to launch attacks against the U.S.
As groundbreaking as such a development would be, we should be crystal clear about two things. First, any deal hashed between the U.S. and the Taliban won’t on its own generate peace in a country that has been dominated by war for four straight decades. And two, despite the fact that Afghanistan will continue to be a violent place, the benefits of a U.S. military withdrawal still outweigh the costs.
The decision in the summer of 2018 to launch a direct line of communication with the Taliban was a risky but bold move from a president who has long made clear his distaste for the 18-year military engagement in Afghanistan. While previous administrations have mulled direct discussions with Taliban leaders before, exploratory diplomacy was largely delayed or overtaken by an overabiding confidence that Washington could browbeat the insurgency into offering more concessions. A more intensive pace of military operations, however, is not necessarily effective against a group that has a rear-base of support in a neighboring country. As politically inexpedient as it may be, talking with the enemy was the crucial first step in exploring a way out of a military stalemate the American people have lost interest in paying for.
We won’t know for certain what the fine print of any U.S.-Taliban agreement will look like until the document is officially presented. But what can be stated with reasonable certainty is that any accord between these two stakeholders will not end the war in Afghanistan. This is not a peace negotiation as much as it is a deescalation negotiation, an opportunity for Washington to extricate itself militarily from a conflict that will enter its 19th year this October. For the majority of Americans, U.S. military disengagement has been long in the making. But for Afghans, it simply means that the war will take on a new form.
It is vital to be clear-eyed about the situation in front of us. With or without a deal, Afghanistan will remain one of the most violent countries on the planet. The grievances over power, wealth, religion and ideology will persist long after American forces are gone. Members of the Taliban who are opposed to dialogue with the Afghan government or the United States or who are simply irreconcilable are highly likely to find a new home, whether it be under the umbrella of Islamic State or under a new organization entirely. Regrettably, Afghans will also remain targets to the kind of ruthless, inhumane terrorist attacks that occurred on Afghanistan’s Independence Day, when 80 innocent people were killed in a suicide bombing at a wedding hall in Kabul. It is also highly likely that the Afghan security forces, already bloodied, overextended and struggling with retention, will lose more ground to the Taliban in the event of a U.S. departure; to believe the Taliban will stop shooting during negotiations with the Afghan government is so unsubstantiated as to be called ignorant.
And yet despite all of this bad news, packing up and going home is still the best option for the United States. The available alternative — maintaining an extraordinarily expensive status quo with no conceivable end in sight — is no alternative.
The American people by and large are highly pragmatic. They know a bad investment when they see one. And for a long period of time, an indefinite conflict in Afghanistan has been the quintessential bad investment, a war that has resulted in the deaths of over 3,500 U.S. and coalition troops at a cost of over $750 billion. Living in the Midwest, it’s hard not to come to the unmistakable conclusion that Americans find the entire adventure in Afghanistan as a foolish enterprise devoid of strategic thinking. Many wanted out yesterday. Others are rightly clamoring for other countries, particularly those in the immediate region, to step up and become far more involved in ensuring Afghanistan’s political stability. If there are any nations on the planet who have an incentive to prevent terrorist groups from running rampant across Kabul, Kandahar and Herat, it is Afghanistan’s neighbors — all of whom view Sunni extremism as a danger to their security. To put it bluntly: Domestic political support for a large, enduring U.S. troop presence and for additional deployments is scraping the bottom of the barrel.
There are also economic reasons for the U.S. to begin a drawdown. At roughly $45 billion a year, the war in Afghanistan is contributing to the very problem former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen has termed “the most significant threat to our national security”: the national debt.
At $22.5 trillion and counting — a figure roughly $3 billion larger than the entire U.S. GDP — the debt is a daily reminder of America’s looming fiscal crisis. Operating in a global strategic environment where competitiveness and rivalry are now at the center of U.S. national security strategy, Washington can no longer afford the types of endless expenditures that have defined the last 20 years of American statecraft. To carry on in Afghanistan without a plan for a military exit is precisely the kind of decision U.S. policymakers should take pains to avoid.
None of this is to say that terrorism doesn’t pose a threat to the American people. It most certainly does. ISIS and al-Qaida remain active in many parts of the world. We got a glimpse of it last week, when an ISIS bomber penetrated Afghanistan’s capital and caused mayhem and grief for so many.
The United States must remain vigilant. This requires the maintenance of an extensive global intelligence network, cooperation with allies, partners and adversaries on the mutual threat terrorism represents, and the utilization of an uncontested offensive strike capability should terrorist groups in Afghanistan or anywhere else pose a direct threat to the American people.
What it doesn’t require is staying trapped in Afghanistan’s domestic politics or committing to a long-term military presence at an enormous cost.
Retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Robert J. Felderman is a former deputy director of plans, policy and strategy at North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command. He is a fellow at the American College of National Security Leaders.