This year, America’s war in Afghanistan will pass a grim milestone as it surpasses the Civil War in duration, as measured against the final withdrawal of Union forces from the South. Only the conflict in Vietnam lasted longer. United States troops have been in Afghanistan since October 2001 as part of a force that peaked at nearly 140,000 troops (of which about 100,000 were American) and is estimated to have cost the taxpayers at least $783 billion.
Despite this heavy expenditure, the United States commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., recently called for a modest troop increase to prevent a deteriorating stalemate. The fall of Sangin in Helmand Province to the Taliban this month is a tactical loss that may be reversed, but it certainly suggests the situation is getting worse. With the Trump administration’s plan to increase the military budget while slashing the diplomatic one, there is a risk that American policy toward Afghanistan will be defined in purely military terms.
Absent from the current debate is a clear statement of our objectives — and a way to end the Afghan war while preserving the investment and the gains we have made, at the cost of some 2,350 American lives. It has always been clear to senior military officers like Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was the American commander in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011, as well as to diplomats like me, that the war could end only through a political settlement, a process through which the Afghan government and the Taliban would reconcile their differences in an agreement also acceptable to the international community.
The challenges of bringing about such a reconciliation are formidable, but the basic outline of a deal is tantalizingly obvious. Despite more than 15 years of warfare, the United States has never had a fundamental quarrel with the Taliban per se; it was the group’s hosting of Al Qaeda that drove our intervention after the Sept. 11 attacks. For its part, the Taliban has never expressed any desire to impose its medieval ideology outside of Afghanistan, and certainly not in the United States.
The core Afghan government requirements for a settlement are that the Taliban ceases violence, breaks with international terrorism and accepts the Afghan Constitution. The Taliban, for its part, insists that all foreign forces withdraw. No doubt, both sides have additional desiderata, but the basic positions do not seem unbridgeable. This is particularly the case now that the Islamic State has emerged in Afghanistan, in conflict with both the government and the Taliban.
Under President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, the Afghan government has supported reconciliation efforts. And there is no question that ordinary Afghans overwhelmingly support peace, even as most also oppose a return of the Taliban’s brutal regime of the 1990s.
At its heart, the Afghan conflict is between rural traditionalists and urban modernizers, and this has been the case since Afghan Communists seized power in 1978. However, regional powers have also played a predatory role.
Pakistan’s cynical support for the Taliban is merely the most visible of the hedging strategies that various neighbors, including the Iranians and the Russians, have adopted to ensure that they have some armed Afghan faction beholden to their interests. A comprehensive political settlement would remove the security dilemma that drives these counterproductive interventions.
So what is the way forward for an Afghan peace process?
The first step is clear, and has come close to fruition over the years. The Taliban should be allowed to open an office, most likely in Doha, Qatar, to conduct peace talks with the Afghan government. This was very nearly accomplished in 2013, but the Taliban overreached by raising its flag and putting up signs identifying the office as representing the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” The American government and the Afghan government, under President Hamid Karzai, rightly rejected these trappings of an embassy, and the deal collapsed.
All potential partners, including the government of Qatar, have learned the lessons of that debacle and have every incentive to avoid repeating it. This is an area for quiet diplomacy, led by the United States.
Once talks begin, our government will have to define its position. Even after all these years of fighting, the United States sometimes deludes itself into thinking it is not a party to the conflict; the Taliban believes otherwise. In coordination with our Afghan allies, the United States should be prepared to put on the table the conditions under which we would consider pulling our forces out of Afghanistan. Any withdrawal would have to be phased in response to the Taliban’s living up to its commitments, including guarantees that Afghan territory will never be used to enable attacks on America.
The more difficult aspect of the discussion will be among the Afghans themselves as they address the central issues that have divided them for decades. The American position should be to ensure there is no backsliding from the progress Afghanistan has made on human rights, including women’s rights, and constitutional government.
Since there have been no negotiations yet, it is difficult to assess what the Taliban’s actual demands would be. Their concern about the Afghan Constitution may be simply that they were not a party to its drafting. Like other countries’ constitutions, Afghanistan’s can be amended.
The United States must remain committed throughout to strengthening the Afghan state, including support for the Afghan Army, so that the Afghan government delegation has a strong negotiating position. Any final settlement would have to include the terms under which the Taliban enters the political system under the Constitution, specific arrangements to ensure that Afghan territory would not be used to attack others and regional commitments to end proxy warfare on Afghan territory.
I hold no brief for the Taliban — two of my friends were murdered by the group. It is brutal and indiscriminate in its violence, and its position on women’s rights has rightly been condemned by the international community. But these are not good arguments for perpetuating conflict in one of the world’s poorest countries. That would not only be a disservice to the Afghan people, but would also probably be unsupportable among the American people.
We have a president who believes in the art of a deal. We should negotiate a hard bargain with the Taliban.
Richard G. Olson was the United States ambassador to Pakistan from 2012 to 2015 and the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2015 to 2016.