Delusions of Dominance
Biden Can’t Restore American Primacy—and Shouldn’t Try
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.
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’s war-drunk high notes: “the men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory,” he said, warning, “a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists.” “In the end,” he promised, “we will win.”
Most important to Trump, as always, was not to be his predecessor: “Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on,” he said. “America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out.”
The strategy was also supposed to change “how to deal with Pakistan,” which, the president said, has “sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people.” “That will have to change,” he said.
There was, however, never any “plan for victory,” and Pakistan’s behavior did not change. If Trump’s decision to withdraw was dictated by “conditions on the ground,” it was only because his strategy had failed to alter those conditions. The U.S. military had defined government control over 80 percent of the population as the benchmark for success, but in January, the U.S. Department of Defense Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction reported that from August 2017 to October 2018, the proportion of the Afghan population living in areas under government influence or control remained constant at 64 percent. “Conditions on the ground” had not improved since the start of the Trump administration, when General John Nicholson, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States and the Afghan government were in a “stalemate.” Two years later, Trump’s South Asia strategy had not moved the stalemate any closer to victory. A devastating National Intelligence Estimate issued in August 2018 reported that, if anything, the Taliban was gaining ground.
Although Trump is hardly known to accept intelligence estimates at face value, this one confirmed that his original instinct to pull out had been right. Some in the administration, most likely led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, convinced the president to try negotiations before a unilateral withdrawal. Pompeo hired Zalmay Khalilzad, a seasoned Afghan-American Republican foreign-policy figure who had worked on Afghanistan in the Reagan and both Bush administrations. As special representative for Afghan Reconciliation, Khalilzad was given a few months to negotiate a deal before Trump pulled the plug.
A negotiated solution was always the only way out of Afghanistan, but the military insisted that the United States and the Afghan government should negotiate only from a “position of strength,” which was always just over the horizon, defined by a Soviet witticism as an imaginary line that recedes as one approaches it. The longer the United States waited for the position of strength, the weaker its actual position became, so when Trump finally accepted the inevitable, Washington was hardly in a position to impose terms.
Kabul and Washington had hoped that military success would force the Taliban into direct negotiations with the Afghan government. But there was no such success, and the Taliban, which reached agreements with the government in 2001 and 2004 only to find the United States unwilling to accept them, had concluded that negotiating with the Afghan government without an agreement with the United States was pointless. The Taliban has not ruled out talking to the government, but it insists on first reaching an agreement with the United States on ending what it calls the “occupation.” The choice facing Washington in 2018, therefore, was between direct negotiations with the Taliban and no negotiations at all.
Now the two sides are reported to be close to an agreement under which U.S. forces would withdraw and the Taliban would guarantee that any future government in which they participate would join the fight against international terrorism. Some critics worry that the United States will remove its troops in return for nothing but unenforceable promises by the Taliban. According to negotiators, however, the agreement would rely not on trusting the Taliban’s promises but on carefully sequencing the components of the agreement and insisting on monitoring mechanisms. The best counterterrorism program would be a political agreement that stabilizes Afghanistan, puts an end to incentives to mobilize terrorist support, and closes ungoverned spaces that terrorists can exploit. The putative agreement specifies, as Khalilzad tweeted in January, that “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and ‘everything’ must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive ceasefire.” Those internal Afghan talks, Khalilzad also tweeted, should be conducted by a “national, inclusive, and unified #Afghan negotiating team,” and he met with groups of women and youth to illustrate what he meant.
That intra-Afghan dialogue is where Afghans, with international backing, can defend their rights. The relationship of the troop withdrawal to the dialogue is yet to be agreed upon, but the U.S. and Afghan position is that any timetable for withdrawal should be linked to the implementation of the political settlement, not just to a calendar.
Trump could still upend this framework and opt for a unilateral withdrawal and aid cuts. Such a decision could well lead to the collapse of the Afghan government, a scenario that recalls the end of the Vietnam War. The Paris Peace Accords, reached in January 1973, provided for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces from South Vietnam within 60 days. Although they included provisions for a cease-fire and a political settlement, these were to take place after U.S. forces left. The United States failed to make its withdrawal conditional on either, and so neither happened. The South Vietnamese government nonetheless survived for over two years. Only in 1975, when a war-weary U.S. Congress cut off all military and financial aid to South Vietnam, did Saigon finally fall.
A similar story played out after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Under the Geneva Accords of 1988—negotiated by Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Soviet Union, and the United States—all Soviet troops would withdraw from Afghanistan by February 1989, and Pakistan and the United States would stop providing aid to the mujahidin based in Pakistan by May 1988. Yet the accords made no provision for a political settlement within Afghanistan. When the deadline for cutting off aid to the mujahideen arrived, the United States and Pakistan asserted that they would continue to support the mujahideen for as long as the Soviet Union supported the Afghan state. The Soviets withdrew on schedule anyway. Over two years later, in September 1991, the United States and a collapsing Soviet Union agreed to stop providing aid to their clients. The Soviet Union collapsed in December. Short of money to pay his armed forces and feed Afghanistan’s urban population, Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah resigned and fled in April 1992. According to a UN peace plan, an interim government formed abroad was meant to replace him, but fighters inside Afghanistan had no stake in that agreement. The country collapsed into civil war.
Such a scenario could play out again in Afghanistan. The United States could catastrophically reduce its military and financial assistance with or without negotiations—but the negotiations provide the only path to stability after the inevitable withdrawal. Trump must allow his negotiators and the Afghan government to take the time they need to reach a deal that links the implementation of the withdrawal agreement to an Afghan political settlement, and he must maintain the flow of aid needed to keep the Afghan state functioning.