President Trump is taking a lot of criticism for abruptly cancelling talks he had hoped to sponsor between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan at Camp David. But he was right to do so – his announcement sent a signal that the Taliban must demonstrate in far more concrete ways a commitment to a peaceful negotiation to end nearly two decades of war.
I say this from experience. When I headed the NATO mission in Afghanistan as supreme allied commander for all global operations from 2009-2013, I studied the Taliban closely. The movement’s name itself simply means “students” in Pashtun, and it is a movement that learned about taking and using power – enough to dominate Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Russian-backed central government before 9/11. Taliban leaders facilitated and protected al-Qaeda, and provided support in the attacks against the U.S. I found them to be tenacious, determined, resilient and utterly implacable foes who took the long view. “The Americans have all the watches, but we have all the time,” was a favorite saying.
The new peace agreement thus far, painstakingly negotiated by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad – a skilled former ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations – was between the U.S. and the Taliban only. The Camp David meeting was supposed to be a turning point, wherein the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban could come together, echoing former President Bill Clinton’s bringing together of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the government of Israel in 2000, also at Camp David. (That attempt, too, died stillborn.)
The deal on the table reportedly included a U.S. withdrawal of its 14,000 troops, including a down-payment of around 5,000 leaving within a few months after the accord was completed. The Taliban were to provide guarantees that there would be no return to creating “safe havens” for groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (which is rising in prominence within Afghanistan). There was also a provision to free thousands of Taliban prisoners being held by the Afghan government. All of this was to be cemented with a prolonged cease-fire – and it was that portion of the agreement that the Taliban failed to honor, continuing their attacks and killing another U.S. service member last week.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo evidently continues to believe that there is a path forward for the talks. But the Taliban have been consistent in their loathing of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, calling its leaders “stooges” and at times refusing to even begin a conversation with hit until all U.S. troops have left. How can this go forward?
First, the U.S. needs to recognize the Taliban for what it is: A deeply unpopular theocracy (polling consistently shows them with less than 10% approval ratings nationwide) with brutal norms of behavior (particularly against women and girls) that aren’t going to change anytime soon. Instead of using the Ronald Reagan line about the Soviet Union, “trust, but verify,” with the Taliban Washington must “verify, then trust.” That means demanding a full cease-fire for at least a six month cooling-off period before beginning any U.S. troop withdrawal. It also means the Taliban must be willing to sit with the Afghan government to at least initiate a conversation about a peaceful end to the conflict.
The U.S. should also be willing to keep a minimum level of troops in the country for a significant period of time, and to finance the Afghan security forces. When I commanded the NATO mission, we had 150,000 troops in country, a number now reduced by 85% to about 14,000 U.S. and 5,000 allied forces. Casualties to U.S. and allied troops are likewise far below what we experienced a decade ago. The Afghan security forces are taking 95% of all casualties, and the NATO mission is in support, not in the lead – providing training, logistics, intelligence and some limited special-forces and air operations. Washington also needs to recognize the role Pakistan has played in supporting the Taliban for decades, and continue to pressure the Pakistanis to encourage the insurgents to come to the bargaining table.
Most insurgencies end not on a battlefield or at a formal surrender, but in a negotiation. There is still time to avoid a Vietnam-like outcome, with helicopters lifting off the roofs of Afghan government buildings ferrying off the survivors. A better model is the end of the insurgency in Colombia in the mid-2010s, in which the FARC rebels came in from the jungle after five decades, stacked their weapons peacefully, and were given the opportunity to compete in free elections.
If the Taliban are unwilling to accept a peaceful outcome – including a full cease-fire while negotiations are underway – the U.S. should walk away from the table. Artificial deadlines would be a tragic mistake. The NATO allies should continue to support our Afghan partners with a limited military mission and sufficient funding to keep the military pressure on the Taliban. That is the only path to a lasting and just peace.