- - Sunday, February 17, 2019

The United States and the Taliban have agreed in principle to a roadmap for peace, according to Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. But peace is not at hand.

About two weeks ago, Mr. Khalilzad told an audience at the U.S. Institute for Peace that his team had gotten Taliban agreement to “guarantees and enforcement mechanisms” that will ensure that Afghanistan would never again be a safe haven for terrorists such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS).

The U.S. negotiators want to reach an agreement with the Taliban before the nationwide presidential election scheduled for July. The Taliban — and their many allies, including Pakistan, Russia and China — have no deadline.

The peace talks are reportedly stalled over at least two fundamental issues. First, the United States wants a cease-fire before a peace agreement can be signed. The Taliban insist that there cannot be a cease-fire until all U.S. and NATO troops are withdrawn. Second, the United States wants the Taliban to negotiate a reconciliation with the U.S.-supported government of Ashraf Ghani, which the Taliban refuse to do.

On Feb. 5, the Russians began their own talks between the Taliban and former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, one of Mr. Ghani’s political opponents. Russia’s aim is not to make peace but to undermine any agreement between us and the Taliban, as if that were necessary.

The Taliban’s intentions mirror those of the North Vietnamese at the end of the Vietnam War, so they have patterned their strategy on the one the North Vietnamese used. Just as the North Vietnamese refused to talk to the U.S.-backed Saigon government, the Taliban refuses negotiations with the U.S.-supported Ghani government.

The Paris Peace Accord supposedly preserved South Vietnam’s right to self-determination. But the North attacked shortly after the last U.S. troops left in 1973 and by 1975 had conquered all South Vietnam. Because of the certainty that the Taliban will violate any agreement as soon as the United States leaves, the likelihood that any peace in Afghanistan would prevent the fall of the Ghani government and a resurgence of terrorist networks in Afghanistan is a nullity.

In Iraq and Syria, the prospects for peace are not any greater.

After invading Iraq in 2003 and toppling the Saddam Hussein regime, President Obama withdrew our forces in 2011. In 2014, the Iraqis requested their return and U.S. troops have been there since fighting ISIS.

Last December, after a surprise visit by President Trump, many Iraqi legislators called for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militias fought U.S. troops for years, is now a major political force in Iraq. Many of the legislators who demanded U.S. withdrawal are members of Mr. al-Sadr’s political party.

Mr. al-Sadr is a bipolar politician, partly an Iraqi nationalist and partly a follower of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Both sides of Mr. al-Sadr are our enemy.

In short, Iraq isn’t quite an Iranian satrapy, at least yet, but its politicians, led by those who Mr. al-Sadr controls, may force us to leave. Iran is considerably strengthened by our failure in Iraq.

In December, President Trump announced that our troops would be withdrawn from Syria, and on Jan. 11 the Pentagon announced that the withdrawal had begun. The withdrawal has since been delayed while negotiations continue to establish a safe zone for Kurdish forces on the Turkish border. The positions of the United States, our Kurdish allies and Turkey have proved irreconcilable.

The reaction of Democrats to all these events have been beyond strange. Many have opposed the planned withdrawals from Afghanistan and Syria, sounding as if they were neocon interventionists. They only oppose our withdrawal because it is Mr. Trump’s decision. They propose no alternative to leaving our troops there on an endless and undefined mission.

In his State of the Union speech, the president said that great nations do not fight endless wars. In that he was precisely correct. Great nations fight wars — even long wars — to an end that benefits their national security or until they are defeated.

In Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, we have not reached any ends that benefit our security.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, we have been defeated by our own strategy. Nation-building to create some sort of democracy cannot work among a population whose religion doesn’t permit the separation of church and state. Moreover, and equally important, is the fact that three presidents have failed to fight and destroy the enemy’s ideology. That, alone, propels Islamic forces to fight us. We cannot win without defeating that ideology.

In Syria, we haven’t been defeated but have been out-maneuvered militarily and politically by Russia, Iran and Turkey. Even if we are clear about the devastating consequences we will impose on any nation that attacks the Kurds, Syria will remain a nation controlled by our adversaries.

The result of the Afghanistan War will be the same as the result of the Vietnam War and for much the same reason.

The lesson of Vietnam isn’t that a better approach to nation-building could make it successful. The lesson is that if we don’t fight a war in a manner calculated to win it decisively, we will lose the war inevitably.

Great nations can fight long wars and win them. We haven’t.

• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”

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