In the face of a standoff between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah — each of whom is determined to be considered the duly elected president of Afghanistan, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to Kabul to provide one last push toward a single government that could negotiate with the Taliban. It didn’t happen. Pompeo announced his disappointment and a cut of $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan for 2021, but fell short of throwing in the towel. “We’re hopeful, frankly, they’ll get their act together,” he said. “And we won’t have to [cut the aid], but we are prepared to do that if they can’t.”
Mr. Pompeo is taking the next step in setting conditions for the United States to end its presence in Afghanistan. The only people who thought the U.S.-Taliban “peace plan” announced earlier this year was supposed to bring peace between the Taliban and the Afghan government were the people who think a “peace plan” will do it for Israelis and Palestinians. In neither case is a negotiated “peace” an achievable objective, because “peace” is not a negotiable property. Nowhere in history do people give up deeply held convictions for quiet — or even for money. At least not for long.
So, what is the American objective in Afghanistan? It is to get the United States out of the middle of the Afghan civil war.
The U.S. entered the country to punish the Taliban for harboring al Qaeda and not turning Osama Bin Laden over after the 9/11 attacks. We succeeded when we forced them from governance. At no time was our mission — or should our mission have been — to create a democratic, western-style country in a rockpile with a history of chewing up and spitting out foreigners. Ask the British and the Soviets.
While both Democrats and Republicans have said for years that they wanted to leave Afghanistan, we have spent $975 billion on allied military operations and billions more in economic assistance. More important, we lost more than 2,440 soldiers and nearly 2,000 civilian contractors without asking the fundamental question: what are we doing there? And without seeming to notice that our original — and successful — objective of punishing the Taliban had morphed into “democratization and modernization” with all that implies: elections, education, eradication of poppy fields, road building, protecting the Afghan government, and building a modern Afghan military force to fight the Taliban upon its return to its traditional territory after taking refuge in Pakistan.
Those last two are crucial, turning the United States from an internationally aggrieved party following 9/11 into a shield for a government in Kabul that is corrupt, inept, and appears to believe the U.S. will shield it in perpetuity from the worst of its own excesses. The Taliban was clearly an enemy of the United States, but they are natives and we are not, so finding a mechanism by which we can leave their country might work for us.
The U.S.-Taliban agreed parameters are clear:
- A temporary ceasefire
- Withdrawal of foreign forces. The terms include continued training support for the Afghan government
- Intra-Afghan negotiations
- Taliban assurance not to allow the territory of Afghanistan to be used by terrorists to threaten the U.S. — the reason the coalition originally entered.
And although they have been violated in some measure — notably with Taliban attacks on Afghan government positions and the Afghan government refusing to talk to the Taliban without conditions — these are early days. There is work to be done for the U.S. to reach its primary objective: to leave Afghanistan’s civil war to its parties without providing an opening for the return of al Qaeda or its offshoots.
Regardless of the outcome in Afghanistan itself, the United States will remain in the region in some capacity as jihadists spread out looking for more hospitable space. This is the case across the Middle East and Southwest Asia — the U.S. evicted ISIS from its territorial base in Syria and Iraq, but it has reconstituted in a lesser fashion and with lesser means in Africa and elsewhere. Those jihadist groups that don’t find haven in Afghanistan will look beyond. And the U.S. will have to have a broad plan.
Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper noted that the U.S. is working with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. “There are partner nations that have maybe not been historically aligned with the United States, former Soviet Union satellite states, that we are working with to ensure a more cohesive ‘northern access corridor,’ regardless of what happens with the Afghanistan peace talks or reconciliation.”
Some American veterans of the Afghan war have understandably mixed — and even negative – feelings about leaving. “I wanted to get out, but I didn’t think we’d get out like that, handing the guys we fought for the last 18 years a victory,” said one Army veteran.
But “victory” requires militarily achievable objectives. Being bogged down with an Afghan “ally” that isn’t, to the detriment of a regional approach to the continuing threat of Islamic jihadism, is not a victory either.