Meeting U.S. Counterterrorism Objectives in Afghanistan

June 13, 2019
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There may be no assignment on the face of the earth today as difficult as forging a durable peace agreement in Afghanistan.  This is precisely what Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, has been tasked with accomplishing.  As anybody who has been monitoring America’s 18-year military involvement in Afghanistan will tell you, ending a war that has persisted for a generation is border-line “mission impossible.”

Khalilzad, however, is absorbing the challenges in stride.  While the Taliban’s refusal to declare a ceasefire during this year's Eid al-Fitr holiday was undoubtedly discouraging, the organization's leadership remains at the negotiating table and at least appears willing to cut ties to Al-Qaeda—the very terrorist grouping that brought the United States to Afghanistan in the first place.  Intra-Afghan discussions may be barely moving (talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Kabul are non-existent), yet if public reporting is accurate, the Taliban have already agreed in draft to Washington's primary demand—ensuring Afghanistan does regress to its previous form as a terrorist training ground.  The United States can't allow such a scenario to happen.

None of us can predict whether U.S. and Taliban negotiators will have the fortitude, determination, and pragmatism to reach an accord.  But the unpredictability that often characterizes a high-stakes diplomatic process shouldn’t prevent the Trump administration from planning for that eventuality.  If he hasn’t done so, President Trump should direct his national security advisers across the bureaucracy to determine what a post-deal counterterrorism arrangement in Afghanistan would look like.

There are several options available to U.S. policymakers—none of which are full-proof but at least provide Washington with some assurance that the American people will be protected from transnational terrorism after U.S. military personnel decrease substantially.

  • An ultimatum: included as a critical part of any deal, U.S. officials should deliver an unambiguous warning to the Taliban that Washington reserves the right at any time to use military force against terrorists in Afghanistan if it acquires intelligence of an imminent threat against Americans.  The Taliban will inevitably blanch at an ultimatum and likely chafe at a contingency that grants U.S. forces with the ability to operate in Afghanistan after the war is over.  But Taliban officials won’t have to worry about hypothetical U.S. military strikes as long as they fulfill their obligations and proactively cooperate with the Afghan security forces on counterterrorism.

For such an ultimatum to work, the threat from the U.S. needs to be credible.  The Taliban would have to believe that a U.S. president would follow through and order American forces into harm's way if terrorists in Afghanistan posed a danger to U.S. citizens and interests.  But given the fact that Washington destroyed the Taliban's Islamic Emirate in a matter of months in the fall of 2001, credibility is already firmly established.

  • A post-conflict, residual counterterrorism force under U.N. command: a unilateral U.S. counterterrorism unit may be too much for the Taliban to accept, regardless of its size, location, and composition.  After all, an American military withdrawal from Afghanistan is the Taliban’s most significant objective in the ongoing negotiations.  To bank on the movement agreeing to a long-term American presence on Afghan soil is like going to the poker table and banking all of your assets on a single hand.

A multinational force under United Nations supervision, however, could be easier for the insurgents to stomach—particularly if the Taliban are permitted to join the Afghan political process as full participants in the country's future and are given guarantees that their fighters will be incorporated into the state's security structure.  A U.N. troop contingent with the proper mandate—if adequately manned, outfitted and financed—would not only provide visibility over the Taliban's post-deal implementation but would also internationalize the Afghanistan issue.  This would serve two goals for the United States: keeping the Taliban on its toes and offloading responsibility for Afghanistan to the international community after 18 years of great sacrifice and investment.

  • Joint Afghan-Taliban teams: the Taliban will be a part of the Afghan social fabric, whether we like it or not.  Washington can't wish the Taliban away just like it can't kill every last fighter in its ranks.  Indeed, if the insurgency could be snuffed out by a strategy of blunt attrition, U.S. soldiers would have been home a long time ago.

Even if a conflict-ending agreement is signed, the Taliban will retain a considerable presence in Afghanistan’s south and southeast, particularly in districts that remain far beyond the reach of the Afghan government’s control.  In the event of a peace agreement, it may make sense for Kabul to formally team up with Taliban fighters who, after all, have just as much stake in competing against the Islamic State as Kabul does.  Taliban militants have proved that they are willing and able to take action against the Islamic State in Nangarhar, a province bordering Pakistan that Kabul has been unable to pacify.  Aiding Taliban operations in these remote areas of the country, perhaps through Afghan air support, special forces teams on the ground, or logistical assistance, could be the most effective way in the short-term to cow the very terrorists that threaten the interests and security of all parties.

Some of these proposals are admittedly unconventional.  Afghan-Taliban counterterrorism cooperation at the tactical level—or any level—would currently be unworkable given the fact that both sides remain violently opposed to one another on the battlefield.  And after so many years with a sizable U.S. troop commitment in Afghanistan, a significant portion of the policymaking community in Washington are concerned about the slightest decrease in American forces.

It would be strategically unwise, however, for U.S. leaders to fall asleep at their desks and fail to explore other security arrangements.  The planning needs to start now.

Brig Gen Francis X. Tailor (USAF, Ret.) 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.

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