Crisis of Command
America’s Broken Civil-Military Relationship Imperils National Security
After more than 18 years of fighting in Afghanistan and many missed opportunities, the United States and the Taliban are on the verge of signing a conditional peace agreement. As a prelude to the deal, both parties began a voluntary seven-day reduction in violence on February 22. So far, the lull in the fighting has held. While an accord with the Taliban entails a number of risks, such dangers are to be expected in a complicated peace process, and they should not obscure the fact that the agreement is Washington’s best hope of ending the longest American war.
The deal on the table in Afghanistan is the culmination of peace talks that began in September 2018, when Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghan reconciliation, opened a dialogue with the Taliban Political Commission. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump saw bilateral talks that excluded the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as the first step toward a political settlement between all Afghan parties. In January 2019, Khalilzad offered to give the Taliban a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. military forces. In return, the Taliban eventually agreed to stop assisting al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, to reduce violence, and to reach a political settlement with the government and other Afghans that would end the war.
But just when a U.S.-Taliban agreement looked imminent in September 2019, events on the battlefield interceded. Trump called off an elaborate peace ceremony at Camp David at the last minute, after the Taliban killed a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan (and amid criticism on Capitol Hill and in the press.) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo then demanded that the Taliban reduce violence prior to any deal with the United States, something the Taliban had fiercely resisted in the past. Negotiations resumed in November and continued until February 2020. On February 13, Pompeo announced a “pretty important breakthrough” in negotiations; perhaps compelled by Trump’s September walkout, Taliban leader Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhunzada had apparently agreed to Pompeo’s demand.
The way ahead is by no means certain. If the seven-day reduction in violence holds, on February 29, both sides are expected to sign a U.S.-Taliban agreement and announce a timeline for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces. The 12,000 to 13,000 U.S. troops currently serving in Afghanistan are slated to draw down to 8,600 within 135 days. (The timeline for the withdrawal of the entire force has not been officially released.) As U.S. troops begin to withdraw, the Taliban are expected to begin fulfilling their commitment not to assist terrorists. Within ten to 15 days after the signing, intra-Afghan negotiations on a lasting political settlement would commence between the Taliban, the Afghan government, and other representatives of Afghan society.
Much could still go wrong. The withdrawal of U.S. military personnel could allow a terrorist threat to grow. Ghani’s government could refuse to trade leadership of the country for a new political settlement. And Pakistan, with its concerns about possible Indian influence in Afghanistan, could pressure the Taliban to resist any settlement that doesn’t accord with its interests.
As U.S. troops begin to withdraw, the Taliban are expected to begin fulfilling their commitment not to assist terrorists.
There are practical differences between the Afghan parties, as well. The Taliban reject the current constitution, for instance. But what exactly the group wants to replace that document with is unclear. A return to anything resembling the emirate of the 1990s would be unacceptable to Ghani and deeply uncomfortable for the United States. I have often heard current and former Taliban say that, instead of an “emirate,” they want a state with an “Islamic foundation.” But Islamic scholars and Taliban leaders have been unable to clearly define the meaning of this term. Sometimes, it seems to be a synonym for the old emirate. Other times, it seems to mean a state run according to Islamic law that could also be a democracy. Encouragingly, many of these same Islamic scholars and Taliban leaders believe that the Afghans can work this out, sitting across the table from one another. Washington should be patient and let this process play out, extending the withdrawal timeline and pressuring the Afghan government and the Taliban as necessary.
The great strength of the current U.S.-Taliban agreement is that it gives the United States time to test the group’s sincerity. If Taliban leaders failed to fulfill their obligations, the withdrawal of U.S. troops could be suspended or canceled altogether. Washington must therefore be willing to halt or reverse the drawdown if the Taliban didn’t hold up their side of the bargain. This means the U.S. military, the Trump administration, and Congress must remain vigilant and not allow a U.S. withdrawal to proceed on autopilot.
There is every reason to take further steps down the path to peace, even as the Taliban are tested. The United States will have plenty of time to change course if the Taliban proved disingenuous. In the best case, the Taliban would break from al Qaeda and agree to a political settlement in which they abstain from demanding a monopoly on rule and broadly accept democratic elections, women’s rights, and full-fledged political rights for all Afghans. The United States would probably have to stay months longer than expected as negotiations stall, pause, and reconvene, but U.S troops would ultimately depart. Such a peace deal would hold the potential to end the suffering of the Afghans and ensure the security of the United States.
The Taliban might pick up arms again and have a run at taking over the country.
There would still be the question of the Taliban’s long-term commitment to peace. Even if they met their counterterrorism guarantees and agreed to a political settlement, the Taliban might pick up arms again and have a run at taking over the country once U.S. military forces complete their withdrawal. Such a betrayal is by no means inevitable, but the possibility cannot be eliminated. The United States can mitigate that risk by maintaining an embassy in Afghanistan and continuing to fund economic development projects, civil society, and appropriate elements of the Afghan security forces. These institutions can’t stop the Taliban from taking over the country, but they can make the group think twice about doing so. The United States should also make it clear that if the Taliban reneged on the deal, U.S. military action would overturn their regime once more. A joint statement with Pakistan, Russia, and other regional powers that pledged their opposition to the breaking of a political settlement and a return to Taliban rule could be particularly helpful.
A possible commitment problem on the part of the Taliban should not deter the United States from implementing the conditional agreement. The United States has missed too many opportunities over the course of its long Afghan war. It need not do so again. The risk of a betrayal by the Taliban is preferable to the alternatives: a never-ending war or a humiliating, unilateral withdrawal. In any event, such a betrayal would be a long way off. In the near term, the United States should explore the opportunities that peace talks offer.