Ending America’s Endless War in Afghanistan

I took command of the United States Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment two months before the Sept. 11 attacks. Not long after, the regiment deployed to Afghanistan as part of the American effort to destroy Al Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power.

In the 18 years since, soldiers from the 75th Ranger Regiment, a Special Operations light-infantry unit, have always been deployed to Afghanistan. And as others did, I returned many times thereafter. During his Thanksgiving visit to American troops in Afghanistan, President Trump declared that he had reopened peace talks with the Taliban. The president’s announcement is a rare chance to end our longest war.

We are now in a position to seal a United States-Taliban agreement that would lead to intra-Afghan negotiations and move the conflict into the political realm. We should not miss this opportunity.

The war has exacted an overwhelming cost: 1,892 American military personnel killed in action and 20,589 wounded, about a trillion dollars spent, the psychological and emotional impact on veterans and their families, and similar material and human costs to our allies. And there is the devastating cost paid by the people of Afghanistan: Of the 147,000 killed in the war since 2001, more than 38,000 have been civilians. This long war must end.

The first opportunity to end this conflict on our terms was in 2002 when Al Qaeda was dispersed and the Taliban were shattered. A persistent political and diplomatic effort supported by steady military support could have put us on a different path. Instead, the intervening years brought one failed strategy after another, each for identifiable reasons: diverted attention, lack of military resources, loss of political will, arbitrary timelines, a resurgent and externally supported Taliban, fatigue in both the United States and Afghanistan and severe internal problems within the Afghan government.

The most recent opportunity to achieve our objectives emerged in August 2017 with the announcement of the Trump administration’s South Asia strategy, which earmarked political reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban as our principal objective.

At the time, I was commander of United States Central Command, responsible for our military operations in an area that spread from Egypt to Pakistan and Kazakhstan to Yemen — including Afghanistan. We recognized early that the South Asia strategy was a prudent and realistic way to put focus back into the political and diplomatic realm and that pursuing a political settlement was our best chance to end the war.

We also knew a quick resolution wasn’t possible given the obstacles: A fractured Afghan government, Pakistan continuing to enable the Taliban, the influence of Iran and Russia, mixed Afghan military performance, increasing high-profile insurgent attacks in urban areas of Afghanistan, lack of trust between the principal Afghan adversaries and emergence of a branch of the Islamic State in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan.

The United States continued working toward our objective, and there has been some progress since August 2017. There have been short cease-fires, a marked decrease in Pakistan interference, direct talks with the Taliban, preliminary agreements and a prisoner exchange. But there has also been continuing violence, a breakdown in talks and a continuing lack of trust between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The Taliban refused to open direct talks with the Afghan government, so the United States took a first step toward peace by opening peace negotiations with them, which we hoped would lead to internal Afghan-Taliban negotiations.

Despite the uneven progress on the ground, the special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief American negotiator, supported by American and coalition forces, continued to press for peace. Even after the peace negotiations stopped in September following a spike in Taliban violence, Mr. Khalilzad continued his shuttle diplomacy to preserve this tenuous opportunity.

On Saturday Mr. Khalilzad rejoined negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. We need to press for an agreement between the United States and the Taliban and cement the parallel support of the Afghan government. This would lead within days to the initiation of direct meetings between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Specific agreed-upon conditions would then drive the pace of the withdrawal of American forces. But the Taliban must demonstrate commitment to our shared objectives of a reduction in violence, make an unambiguous break from Al Qaeda and commit to continued (and effective) operations against the Islamic State.

The initial objective should be a comprehensive and enduring cease-fire. This approach can provide us a way to consolidate the gains of the past 18 years and achieve our stated objective of ensuring that we will never absorb another attack on our homeland from Afghanistan.

Some may argue that the Taliban cannot be trusted and will never live up to their commitments, and this may be true. But we can put in place measures that will allow us, and the international community, to observe, monitor and enforce whatever agreement is finally reached.

President Trump often highlights the need to “end the endless wars.” We should end this one by pursuing the difficult and sometimes messy political and diplomatic process that includes talking, finding compromise and setting conditions to forge new relationships.

I have retired from the United States Army, but soldiers from the 75th Ranger Regiment — some born after the Sept. 11 attacks — are still deployed in Afghanistan.

Now is the time to seize a fleeting opportunity and fully support internal Afghan negotiations. We should put ourselves in the position to shift our focus to enforcing peace and greater stability in Afghanistan. Now is indeed the time to bring an end to our endless war.

Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of United States Central Command from March 2016 to March 2019, is a nonresident distinguished senior fellow on national security at the Middle East Institute.

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