Afghan Counterterrorism Through Peace
As the U.S.-Taliban peace negotiations lurch forward in fits and starts, there is a fundamental question lingering in the minds of U.S. policymakers in Washington—is there a way for the United States to withdraw the preponderance of its troops and extricate itself from an otherwise endless war while at the same time ensuring fundamental U.S. national security interests continue to be protected?
You can forgive the Washington foreign policy community for thinking this is an altogether impossible mission, akin to pounding a square peg into a round hole. The headlines pouring out of Afghanistan are such as dreary today as they were last year, with Taliban militants continuing to ambush Afghan soldiers at remote checkpoints and laying siege to Afghan government compounds in remote corners of the country. The Afghan people first and foremost remain the primary victims of the violence. There is hardly a family in Afghanistan who hasn't experienced personal loss. The statistics bear this out; in February, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan documented 3,804 civilian fatalities in 2018, the highest number recorded since the figures were tracked.
While the violence on the ground often makes Afghanistan appear like a bleak and downright hopeless place, the United States can still accomplish its primary national security objective at a far more sustainable cost. In other words, Washington can keep the American people safe from transnational terrorism emanating from Afghanistan without falling back on the same failed strategy of the last eighteen years.
The U.S. may not have the ability to transform Afghanistan into a model democratic state in the heart of Central Asia—a fantastical objective that would only be remotely possible with an indefinite and extravagant nation-building campaign over a period of decades to the tune of tens of thousands of U.S. troops and trillions of dollars. What the U.S. does have, however, is the ability—with the assistance of the Afghan government—to prevent groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State from transforming Afghan soil into an epicenter of terrorism against the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests overseas.
Fortunately, this objective can be achieved through the current Afghan peace process. By Ambassador Khalilzad’s own telling, U.S. negotiators have arrived at a draft agreement whereby the Taliban would officially denounce ties to Al-Qaeda and proactively collaborate with other stakeholders in pursuit of an independent Afghanistan unthreatening to the United States or any other country. If the draft agreement is finalized, it would be a historic achievement far different than the old days when the Taliban and Al-Qaeda enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. Having experienced in 2001 and 2002 what can occur when terrorist groups can freely plan attacks overseas, the Taliban has an incentive to avoid making the same mistakes. Taliban dignitaries in Doha seem to have come to the realization that partnering with the likes of Al-Qaeda or refusing to combat terrorists who use Afghan territory as a base is extraordinarily counterproductive to the movement.
It’s not difficult to envision why the Taliban are now willing to discuss divorcing themselves from Al-Qaeda after years of resistance. Before the 9/11 attacks, the group was at the pinnacle of its power, ruling Kabul with an iron-fist and preparing a renewed offensive against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan's northern mountains. The Taliban's dreams of establishing Islamic emirate under its control, however, collapsed as soon as Al-Qaeda hijackers crashed four passenger airliners in New York, the Pentagon, and a field in remote Pennsylvania. In just a few short months, the emirate the Taliban worked to construct was destroyed. Its fighters were ducking American bombs and running for their lives. Some were fortunate enough to escape to Pakistan’s tribal areas; the less fortunate were either bombarded by the most superior air force in history or captured, their lives forever ruined. Learning lessons the hard way, it is highly unlikely the Taliban would be stupid or reckless enough to emulate this experience again.
There is always the possibility, of course, that the Taliban is not sincere in cutting its relationship with foreign terrorists in Afghanistan. Security assurances, therefore, are both prudent and necessary—not only to test the Taliban’s sincerity and monitor implementation but to elicit harsh punishment if the group violates its commitments. The fact that Al-Qaeda continues to view Afghanistan as a safe-haven and the Islamic State has accelerated the pace of its attacks against Afghan minorities means that the entire international community must guarantee any counterterrorism agreement with the Taliban. The U.S. military and our NATO Allies, which have been fighting and dying in Afghanistan for over 17 years at a considerable cost in blood and treasure, should no longer be asked to shoulder the substantial weight of the task on their own. Nor should the United States settle for token international assistance. Washington’s allies and partners, especially Afghanistan’s neighbors, must step up and take far more responsibility for what is ultimately a shared national security objective—ensuring Afghanistan does not descend back into an Al-Qaeda bastion.
Before agreeing to a comprehensive settlement with the Taliban, the United States should insist on the deployment of a neutral, multinational, third-party task force in a post-conflict Afghanistan for the express purpose of assisting Afghan forces with the difficult challenge of containing the very terrorist groups that are a security danger to Americans, Afghans, Europeans, Pakistanis, and Iranians alike. While Taliban leaders have been staunchly opposed to the deployment of foreign troops on Afghan soil in the past, some evidence suggests that the group would not object to such a force if it brought into the process and treated as a partner.
It's abundantly obvious that the American people want out of Afghanistan, an armed conflict that has lasted for nearly an entire generation. Americans are exhausted of expensive wars that grind on without resolution. Given the tens of thousands of casualties and trillions of dollars in expenditure over seventeen years and counting, this popular sentiment is entirely understandable.
Fortunately, U.S. officials can finally put an end to an endless war. But it will require a willingness to invest wholeheartedly in the peace process; reinvest in the awesome power of America's diplomatic corps; exhibit the political courage to work with past enemies in the event of a peace accord, and internationalize rather than Americanize the Afghanistan counterterrorism portfolio. America's sons and daughters in uniform cannot and indeed should not be expected to take on this weighty burden alone.
Brig Gen (USAF, Ret.) Francis X. Tailor is a former Under Secretary of Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security and a fellow the American College of National Security Leaders.