The art of a deal with the Taliban

Richard G. Olson writes: This year, America’s war in Afghanistan will pass a grim milestone as it surpasses the Civil War in duration, as measured against the final withdrawal of Union forces from the South. Only the conflict in Vietnam lasted longer. United States troops have been in Afghanistan since October 2001 as part of a force that peaked at nearly 140,000 troops (of which about 100,000 were American) and is estimated to have cost the taxpayers at least $783 billion.

Despite this heavy expenditure, the United States commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., recently called for a modest troop increase to prevent a deteriorating stalemate. The fall of Sangin in Helmand Province to the Taliban this month is a tactical loss that may be reversed, but it certainly suggests the situation is getting worse. With the Trump administration’s plan to increase the military budget while slashing the diplomatic one, there is a risk that American policy toward Afghanistan will be defined in purely military terms.

Absent from the current debate is a clear statement of our objectives — and a way to end the Afghan war while preserving the investment and the gains we have made, at the cost of some 2,350 American lives. It has always been clear to senior military officers like Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was the American commander in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011, as well as to diplomats like me, that the war could end only through a political settlement, a process through which the Afghan government and the Taliban would reconcile their differences in an agreement also acceptable to the international community.

The challenges of bringing about such a reconciliation are formidable, but the basic outline of a deal is tantalizingly obvious. Despite more than 15 years of warfare, the United States has never had a fundamental quarrel with the Taliban per se; it was the group’s hosting of Al Qaeda that drove our intervention after the Sept. 11 attacks. For its part, the Taliban has never expressed any desire to impose its medieval ideology outside of Afghanistan, and certainly not in the United States.

The core Afghan government requirements for a settlement are that the Taliban ceases violence, breaks with international terrorism and accepts the Afghan Constitution. The Taliban, for its part, insists that all foreign forces withdraw. No doubt, both sides have additional desiderata, but the basic positions do not seem unbridgeable. This is particularly the case now that the Islamic State has emerged in Afghanistan, in conflict with both the government and the Taliban. [Continue reading…]

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