The Breakdown of U.S.–Taliban Talks Buys Time to Reset the Afghanistan Strategy
U.S. President Donald Trump announced on Saturday that he had called off talks with the Taliban at Camp David. The meeting had probably been arranged to finalise a deal for the start of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The deal apparently had four main pillars: a Taliban guarantee not to allow foreign fighters to use Afghanistan to launch attacks outside the country; the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces; an intra-Afghan dialogue; and a permanent ceasefire.
The question marks over that plan are the credibility of any Taliban commitments, the exclusion of the Afghan government from the peace talks, and what happens next.
These problems are well known to any observer of Afghanistan and certainly to the U.S. lead negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad. He may well have reached the best deal he could with the Taliban, but that doesn’t mean it was one worth taking. Fortunately, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump seem to have a perspective that’s different from the negotiating team’s.
The Taliban have been consistent in their goals since their ouster as Afghanistan’s rulers in 2001. On Monday, they reiterated their core objective: ‘Our struggle for the past 18 years … will continue until the foreign occupation is finished and the Afghans are given a chance to live by their own choice.’
Any deal with Taliban representatives wasn’t going to involve the government of Afghanistan—because the Taliban don’t recognise it. And the starting point for any deal had to be the withdrawal of U.S. troops—because that would acknowledge the Taliban’s view that Afghanistan is under ‘foreign occupation’.
This gets to the heart of things. In late 2002, after the Taliban were ejected from power, Afghanistan was ruled by the U.S. and its international partners. There were no Afghan institutions able to govern and security was wholly provided by foreign troops. That’s no longer true.
An elected government now runs the usual institutions of government—finance, education, transport, health, security, and law and order. The security forces owe allegiance to the president and the state of Afghanistan. Government services are limited, as was always going to be the case in a country that’s suffered decades of civil conflict and had a low base for services before that.
Security remains tenuous. The Taliban and forces like Islamic State and anti-government warlords can, and do, conduct violent attacks. That’s why civilian deaths were at an annual high last year and why they’ve been high through 2019. The increased violence has been in part an effort to demonstrate the Taliban’s determination and to undercut U.S. and international resolve, but the government and civil society have withstood the violence.
The Taliban used to have a strong narrative that led inexorably to their return to power. It was: ‘We live here. You don’t. You are foreign invaders. So, we have the patience to wait you out.’
Maybe by happenstance and confusion rather than good planning, the past 18 years have changed this. NATO, the U.S. and other partners like Australia are indeed foreigners in Afghanistan, but we are now working with a functioning Afghan state run by committed people who don’t want a return of an extreme fundamentalist Taliban.
Narrower goals could have been achieved by the U.S. and its partners in Afghanistan years ago. Removing the Taliban from power because of their support for al-Qaeda and leaving with the promise to return to remove any Afghan-based global terrorist organisations was a path open to the international community before now. Arch-realists still see this as a viable path. They say, rightly, that it’s not the business of the international partners still in Afghanistan to seek to build a nation.
But an alternative realist position is that the new international environment of empowered authoritarians and violent nationalist rulers shows that it’s more important than ever to stand by your friends—particularly if they’re seeking to run a state along principles of democracy and the rule of law and to build civil society. Afghanistan isn’t some version of Europe in Central Asia, and yet it certainly has these features, interlaced with strong tribal customs, practices and mores.
Vladimir Putin showed the strategic influence that comes from standing by your friends when he intervened suddenly and successfully to prop up the Assad regime in Syria. Democracies need to show that it’s not only strongmen who stand by their friends.
The Afghan people are now served by a government, and that government has continuing international support—including from Australia. And the Afghan people and the ministers and officials working across Afghan institutions are our partners. They’ve made life-and-death decisions based on the U.S. and other international partners’ commitments of our continuing support.
The Taliban now need to understand that times have changed since the early 2000s and even 2010s. Because of gains in Afghan governance and security capacity and the growth of NGOs and civil society, the government of Afghanistan with its international partners can now wait the Taliban out.
With continuing international support, time is on the side of the Afghan government and the men, women and children who live in the majority of the country not controlled by the Taliban.
Any peace process without the Afghan government at its core and without a continuing strong international security presence and financial assistance to Afghan security forces simply hands too much power to the Taliban for too little in return.
A peace deal must be led by the Afghan government, with the U.S. and other international partners involved, and with the Taliban at the negotiating table (or as much of the ‘Taliban’ as the leadership controls).
How long will it take to bring the Taliban to talks in this way? Who can tell. But the strategic logic has now changed. And a security presence of some 14,000 U.S. troops and 17,000 NATO and partner contributors—including 300 Australian Defence Force personnel—is sustainable for a long time, while Afghan institutions grow more in capacity and civil society grows too.
The cancellation of the Camp David talks can be a moment to recognise this and to reset the U.S. strategy and the narrative.
Maybe it’s also a moment to recognise that Trump’s instincts on the big things seem pretty solid when it really matters, with the step away from the Korean peninsula bromance done at the right time, the continued pressure on China’s President Xi Jinping, and now this step with the Taliban.
Trump will have to wait to bring the U.S. troops home. He has sought peace, but with an enemy that only wants to demonstrate U.S. weakness. That’s a mistake the Taliban will wish they hadn’t made, but for which the Afghan people will be grateful.
This article appeared originally at The Strategist (ASPI).