The Trump administration inherited the “Afghanistan problem,” now going into its 18th year. The U.S. presence in this conflict consumes some $45 billion to $50 billion of taxpayer dollars annually as well as the lives of our service men, women and contractors.
While few in the military and national security community will openly admit it, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan serves little national security interest of our nation. Therefore, it’s long past time for the United States to get our remaining 7,000 troops out, and to take a serious look at what the real scenarios and our future options are.
The United States has been in Afghanistan since 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, and it’s the longest war in U.S. history, having claimed more than 2,300 American lives, all in an effort to defeat the Taliban — a hardline Islamist movement that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and still controls much of the country.
At the outset, the Taliban, who then controlled Afghanistan, refused to hand over al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden responsible for the 9/11 attack leading President George W. Bush to launch a military operation against bin Laden and remove the Taliban from power. U.S. special forces eventually found and killed bin Laden in Pakistan — but not until 2011, with U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan officially ending in 2014.
In recent years the Taliban’s power and reach have soared with U.S. troops remaining on the ground with the claimed and limited mission of “stabilizing” the country. By most any metric this has been a failure. The Afghan central government now controls little more then than the capital of Kabul while the extent of Taliban control continues to grow. U.S. military advisers point to the training and arming of Afghan security forces but omit mention that every year a third of this force defects and take their weapons with them.
Other key factors are also largely ignored: Some 75 percent of the entire Afghan economy depends on the illegal opium drug trade and less than 20 percent of the male population can read. The vast majority of the Afghan people have little use for any central government and apart from the Taliban, local drug lords are the ones with any real power.
These numbers haven’t changed in decades and are unlikely to even if the U.S. remains there for another 20 years. A recent U.S. military report that the Afghan government now controls or “influences” 55 percent of the country, but another recent report — from the BBC — finds that the Taliban now controls over 70 percent of the country and that it is increasing.
A significant factor holding up any change in U.S. policy comes from our military — many of whom have served in Afghanistan over the years, indeed their entire military careers — and are reluctant to face the reality that this has been a largely useless enterprise.
Contrary to their views, they are not “defending democracy” or promoting any strategic U.S. interest. The Taliban do not threaten the United States or any regional ally. To the extent Pakistan is some kind of ally of ours in this struggle — which is debatable — they can take care of themselves and have been “in bed with” the Taliban for many years.
On the other hand, while a U.S. troop withdrawal might not much affect current anti-Taliban operations, it would be seen as a positive hint to the Taliban militants who have been demanding all U.S. troops leave. And, for the thousands of Afghans displaced by the war, they may otherwise never return home — so a withdrawal could be welcomed if it helped peace talks.
The bright light now is that U.S. and Taliban officials have agreed in principle to the “framework” of a peace deal, after five days of talks with U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Qatar. In a variety of roles, including ambassador to Afghanistan, Mr. Khalilzad has more experience and a deeper understanding of this problem than most anybody else, and the United States is fortunate to have him in this role. Both sides have said that real “progress” has been made toward ending the 17-year conflict in Afghanistan.
In the newly agreed upon framework, the Taliban would prevent Afghan territory from being used by groups such as al Qaeda to stage terrorist attacks, which could lead to a full pullout of U.S. combat troops, in return for the Taliban entering talks with the Afghan government and agreeing to a lasting cease-fire. The key here is to prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals.
Until now the Taliban has refused to hold direct negotiations with Afghan government officials, whom they dismiss as “puppets.” Apparently Mr. Khalilzad has made considerable progress in his efforts to get the Taliban to engage in direct talks with the Afghan government, who now claim that they will begin talks with the Afghan government once a firm date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops has been agreed upon. It’s time finally to get the Taliban and Afghan government to work things out among themselves, and such could be a major “win” for the Trump administration, where previous administrations have failed.
There remains a risk that the Taliban might be simply waiting until the U.S. withdraws its troops, then over-running Kabul and killing off its opposition, and this may require contingency plans, with the flexibility needed to address these possibilities that need to be a part of any “final” arrangement.
There is also the concern that agreeing to a “firm date” for U.S. forces to withdraw might be appropriate only after direct discussions on Afghanistan’s future between Kabul and the Taliban were underway and making “progress” — although this is a risk that needs to be taken.
• Abraham Wagner and Daniel Gallington served in senior national security positions.