Besides COVID-19, the topic on everyone’s minds is – or perhaps should be – the peace negotiations between the United States and the Taliban. Though the prospect of peace is potentially encouraging, the United States must tread carefully to ensure that the Afghan government maintains its legitimacy in the process, and that the Taliban, Afghan government, and Afghan people fully trust the U.S. commitment to stay, which will also have important regional ramifications.
The United States has been fighting the Taliban since 2001, when it invaded Afghanistan because the Taliban government willingly harbored terrorists responsible for the September 11 attacks. Though the overthrow itself was relatively quick, U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces have been fighting the Taliban in an insurgency that has waxed and waned over nearly two decades, with a surge of U.S. troops in 2009 and a NATO transition to Resolute Support in 2015 as NATO combat troops withdrew.
The Afghan peace process with the Taliban has endured several rounds but became more serious in 2018 with a shift in strategy as U.S. officials met face to face with Taliban officials for the first time. While the Afghan government encouraged the peace process, noting that a Taliban ceasefire was needed, it was not involved in the negotiations. The Taliban refused to negotiate formally with the Afghan government, and the recent election dispute makes fielding an Afghan government negotiating team difficult. However, its omission is potentially a crucial mistake, as it simultaneously legitimizes the Taliban, who refused to recognize the Afghan government, and delegitimizes the Afghan government, who are excluded from the process. Furthermore, the language of the document signed on February 29, 2020 explicitly notes the Taliban will begin intra-Afghan negotiations with “Afghan sides” (not necessarily the Afghan government) after a guaranteed timeline for withdrawal of all forces, including trainers, advisors, and civilian and support personnel. This language is troubling because of its ambiguity: it calls for the complete removal of U.S. support without enough conditionality or specificity regarding the expectations of the intra-Afghan negotiations.
These events have tremendous consequences in terms of regional stability as well. When the United States intervened in Afghanistan during the Cold War, it abruptly left, leaving Afghanistan to dissolve into violent chaos. The Taliban was able to produce a modicum of stability, which as far as its neighbors were concerned was a good thing. In the present intervention, Afghanistan’s neighbors must ask themselves a similar question: who can we rely on in the long term to maintain stability in Afghanistan? Hopefully the answer is the Afghan government, with the support of the U.S., NATO coalition forces, and regional allies. In the end, though, the Taliban was there before the intervention and will continue its presence after U.S. and NATO forces decide they have had enough.
Moreover, while twenty years seems like a long time, and Americans may want troops to come home, we must remember the lessons of Germany and Japan. One reason Germany and Japan and South Korea, for that matter, stand out as such successes is because we never left. We committed. As the U.S. transitioned from occupation to statebuilding to security assistance, the host governments could count on them. To be sure, the United States has assured the Afghan government that it will continue security force assistance and supporting building up Afghan security forces, though whether this will be possible if they remove all forces, including trainers and advisers, remains to be seen. However, it is not in the best interest of the Afghan people or their regional allies for the U.S. to withdraw troops because we think twenty years is enough or because it is good for a political campaign. Nor is it in the best interest of U.S. credibility for the United States to leave Afghanistan without the full participation of the Afghan government in the decision-making process.
These suggestions are not popular, I admit, but the United States must change its penchant for short-term, quick fixes if we are to convince our allies and enemies alike that we will not change course every election cycle. After all, we saw the ramifications of pulling out of Iraq prematurely: consolidation of power by Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri Maliki; oppression of Sunnis in the government and security forces; and ISIS taking control of one of Iraq’s major cities, Mosul. We have seen the effects of relatively quick operations in regime changes (Libya), peace operations (Somalia), counterinsurgencies (Vietnam), and the like, and with few exceptions they have ended in increased chances of civil war, regional belligerence, and/or blowback. Twenty years may seem like enough, but it is slight compared to the 75 years we have supported Germany, Japan, and South Korea. Time will tell whether this peace process is effective; in the meantime, let us hope that in our rush to get out, we do not lose sight of the real goals: a stable, functioning Afghan state and allies who can trust the United States.
Angela Gill is a PhD candidate in Public Policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government. She holds a BA in Political Science and a BS in Animal Science from North Carolina State University and a Master of Arts in International Relations from Webster University. She previously taught Arabic to servicemembers in support of OIF and conducted research for defense contracts for DARPA and the Office of Force Transformation. Her research interests include statebuilding, counterinsurgency, and the Middle East, and her dissertation focuses on the dynamics of U.S. empowerment of foreign leaders and political instability.
Photo can be found here.