U.S. and NATO troops arrive at the site of a car bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 2017.
Omar Sobhani / REUTERS

Every day, 15,000 U.S. forces deployed in Afghanistan fight Washington’s longest war. In 2018, their mission will cost Americans $45 billion in defense spending alone, almost enough to build U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico twice. Trump, who had campaigned on getting the United States out of Afghanistan, was well positioned to change course. Instead, he sent more troops to pursue a military victory that will never come.

U.S. leaders suffer from strategic paralysis over this war. In 16 long years of fighting, Washington’s core aims have not changed: to disrupt and degrade terrorist groups and to prevent them from rebuilding an unchallenged sanctuary in the region. The method to pursue these objectives has also been constant: direct military action against extremist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, along with aid to both countries to build their security and governance capacity. Yet under three U.S. presidents, at every level of effort, the outcome has been a military stalemate. As of late February, maintaining this stalemate had claimed the lives of almost 2,300 American service members and cost between $1 trillion and $2 trillion.

The Afghan people are better off than they were in 2001. Yet Afghanistan and Pakistan remain hotbeds of extremism. Sanctuary persists for terrorist groups such al Qaeda and the Islamic State (or ISIS), and the Taliban remain an organized force with local backing and foreign support from Pakistan. Trump’s open-ended plan of more military pressure and tougher rhetoric against Pakistan will not achieve U.S. aims. Rather than continue down the same failed path, the United States should be actively pursuing a negotiated end to the war. Most U.S. officials claim that successful talks with the Taliban and other insurgent groups are unlikely, but in truth, Washington has never tried backing a serious peace process with the full weight of its military, intelligence, and economic resources. There’s good reason to think that a full-court press for peace can work. It represents Trump’s best bet to deliver the “plan for victory” that he has said U.S. service members deserve.

GIVE PEACE A CHANCE

A political process to mitigate the Afghan conflict was not seriously on the U.S. agenda until late 2010, when the war was already in its ninth year, and it has never been Washington’s central focus. Many have considered the idea to be a fool’s errand that risks distracting from critical counterterrorism missions. The Taliban are not interested in talks, and even if they were, no viable deal exists, the logic goes. Yet these ideas don’t stand up to scrutiny.

First, instances of increased U.S. military pressure have almost always been followed by Taliban overtures about negotiation, most recently in a message to the “American people” sent on February 14. In each case, however, Washington had no plan for how to respond. Regional and international players with an interest in Afghanistan have also advocated a peace process, but they cannot lead given the preponderance of U.S. military and economic investment. The United States can and should support an Afghan-led process, but deferring to Afghans while being the most powerful military and economic force in the country has become a serial U.S. excuse to let opportunities pass. Without a sincere American effort to help get the peace process started, no political settlement can be tested.

The war in Afghanistan is best viewed on three levels: a war among Afghans, with the Taliban seeking to regain control of the entire nation; a contest for influence among regional powers such as India, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia; and an international fight led by the United States against terrorists whose sanctuary depends on the first two conflicts. Any diplomatic settlement would need to make progress on each of these levels.

The Taliban’s place in a post-settlement Afghanistan is key. A durable peace deal would see the Taliban become a political party in Afghanistan under a constitution that the protects the basic rights of all Afghan citizens, especially women and marginalized ethnic groups. This almost certainly would include constitutional reforms that have been the subject of discussion for years. The political outcome for Afghanistan could include anything from a transition to a parliamentary system to devolution of some federal power to regional governments.

The issue of who controls Afghan security forces and an enforcement mechanism for any deal, including an international peacekeeping force, will be among the most difficult issues to resolve. The Taliban seek the departure of foreign forces, but this will take time. External forces might eventually draw from the United Nations or from other Muslim nations instead of the United States and NATO, but some capacity to continue counterterrorism operations and prevent a slide back to civil war will be needed for several years.

Balancing regional powers’ concerns will also make or break any peace agreement. Pakistan wants its interests in Afghanistan protected. Having Taliban leaders whom Pakistan has cooperated with for decades back in the Afghan government would go a long way to alleviate Islamabad’s anxieties, particularly over India’s influence in the country. This would be a tough sell for many Afghans (and Americans) who have spent years fighting the Taliban. Yet former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his successor Ashraf Ghani both expressed a willingness, within reason, to address Pakistani concerns, including avenues for the Taliban to return to government positions. If adequately reassured, Pakistan should accept a sovereign Afghanistan that has good relations with India. If it is not satisfied, Islamabad will remain the number one potential spoiler of any deal.

Balancing regional powers’ concerns will also make or break any peace agreement.

India entered Afghanistan to balance Pakistan after the Taliban’s ouster. China, meanwhile, hoped to see Afghanistan become a bulwark against separatists in western Xinjiang, where the countries share a 57-mile border. Since 2001, both India and China have experienced massive economic growth, giving them more reasons to seek regional stability for trade, resources, and access through Afghan territory. India is moving forward with a long-delayed pipeline project and has also started delivering wheat to Afghanistan through the Iranian port at Chabahar. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is helping to blunt Pakistan’s reaction to increased U.S. pressure, as Pakistan now sees in Beijing an alternate patron. Both Beijing and Islamabad want to reduce terrorist threats to China’s promised $50 billion investment, and a Pakistani settlement with Afghanistan would be a game changer.

Not unlike the Taliban, Iran, Russia, and China also want to know that American forces will depart the region. They suspect that Karzai is correct in his view that the United States seeks continued chaos to justify a permanent military presence. This fear of Americans staying forever gives the United States substantial leverage and will help Washington set the terms of any deal.

Afghan policemen take position during a blast and gun fire in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, January 2018.
Afghan policemen take position during a blast and gun fire in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, January 2018.
REUTERS

THE DIPLOMACY DEFICIT

The Kabul Process, the main Afghan-led political process to try to end the conflict through negotiation, convened for its second time on February 28. At the time, Afghans were reeling from Taliban attacks, including one in which an explosive-filled ambulance killed about 100 people in the heart of Kabul. Expectations were muted. Nonetheless, Ghani offered to talk to the Taliban without preconditions.

For Kabul’s straining national unity government, this was significant shift. It came with a rare unity from both Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah after an extensive period of discussions with groups across Afghanistan. The move was welcomed by officials from more than two dozen countries and international organizations, including many that rarely see eye to eye like Iran, Russia, and the United States, as well as India and Pakistan.

This may sound promising, but Washington is far from committed. The United States has no special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan; the office was closed last October. No one has even been nominated for the job of assistant secretary of state for the region.

Trump’s ramped-up military effort is opening diplomatic opportunities that will be missed absent serious policy changes, a problem that has long plagued U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. In his August 2017 speech on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, Trump emphasized that “We are not nation-building again . . . We are killing terrorists.” He then installed capable military leaders like General John Nicholson with a mission to increase military pressure and the training of Afghan forces. But there has been no similar investment in a political process, which would require military force to align its objectives with diplomatic efforts rather than run on its own parallel track. Nation-building, peacemaking, and counterterrorism policies should be mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive.

THE MISSING PIECE

At every stage in this war, guns and money have been more important than diplomacy and politics. That can change if American leaders show the Taliban that a peace process can advance their aims, particularly by making clear that the eventual removal of Western troops is one of Washington’s goals.

The Taliban need to believe that the road to settlement with Washington runs through a single process coordinated with the Afghan government. Making the Kabul Process the primary U.S. vehicle for peacebuilding would let U.S. officials manage the Taliban’s insistence on direct negotiations and the Afghan government’s concern about being cut out. Close coordination with Kabul and relevant regional actors and structured engagement with the Taliban—including direct engagement—could let initial talks grow into a genuine peace process with an international mediator.

On his recent visit to Kabul, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the United States was detecting some “interest in talking” from Taliban factions. To go beyond the long-standing lip service that American leaders give to talks, Mattis should urge the president to do three things.

First, Trump should appoint a presidential envoy to oversee the entire U.S. Afghanistan effort. Second, Trump should direct the U.S. military and intelligence communities to make it their main task to support that envoy in creating a peace process. Finally, he should have his envoy work with the Afghans and others through the Kabul Process to find an international facilitator, most likely through the United Nations or Norway. Washington is a primary belligerent in the conflict and can be neither a bystander nor the mediator.

Like military adventures, political peace processes are difficult and often fail. But ending the fighting should be a primary goal of any U.S. leader sending young people to war. Over the past 16 years, Afghanistan has been and continues to be one of the most costly unintended outcomes of the United States’ post-9/11 militarization of foreign policy. Now only a true commitment to diplomacy might turn things around.

  • VIKRAM J. SINGH is Senior Adviser for National Security, Democracy, and Technology at the Center for American Progress. He was a Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2010 to 2011 and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia from 2011 to 2014.
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