In 2012, while I was serving as senior adviser to the State Department special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, I met in Istanbul with a group of Iranian scholars and former diplomats. After listening to the Iranians protest the United States’ purported plans to establish permanent bases in Afghanistan, I told them that they were worrying about the wrong thing. Their problem was not that U.S. forces would stay forever; it was that, sooner or later, they would leave, and the Iranians and their neighbors would once again be stuck with a problem that they could not solve.
Sure enough, that time is coming. In December, The New York Times reported, “The Trump administration has ordered the military to start withdrawing roughly 7,000 troops from Afghanistan in the coming months.” The U.S. government and the Taliban are reportedly close to agreement on a partial framework of a peace deal. Now it is the turn of strategists in Washington to worry about the wrong thing. They fear that the Trump administration is repeating the mistake made by the United States in Vietnam and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan: negotiating a troop withdrawal that leads to the collapse of the U.S.-backed government or a civil war. Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, for example, described the negotiations as a “surrender.”
The negotiations do not represent surrender. Nor are they the reason that the United States is aiming to withdraw its troops; that has long been Trump’s intention. Negotiating in the shadow of a predetermined decision to withdraw may not be the best way to run a peace process, but the real danger is that, regardless of the negotiations, Trump will order an unconditional withdrawal and cut the assistance that sustains the Afghan state.
THE PATH TO PEACE
U.S. President Donald Trump’s current policy of negotiation constitutes a break with the South Asia strategy that Trump announced in August 2017. In the speech laying out the strategy, he hit all of Washington’
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