U.S. needs to end the war with Afghanistan without losing the peace

  • Fareed Zakaria

    Fareed Zakaria

Posted8/2/2019 1:00 AM

Donald Trump is clearly searching for a way out of Afghanistan. This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bluntly explained the president's directions to him: "End the endless wars. Draw down. Reduce." Trump's frustration with this long and inconclusive conflict is well-founded. Washington cannot simply keep doing what it has been doing for the last 18 years and expect a new outcome.

But everything now depends on how Trump pursues disengagement. Properly handled, the focus would be on a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. That would preserve some of the real gains that have been made in Afghanistan since the conflict began. Poorly done, an American withdrawal could reignite the Afghan civil war, emboldening terrorist groups and plunging the nation into another decade of turmoil -- which might then force the United States to re-enter in one way or another. That is, after all, what happened after the U.S. withdrew too quickly from Iraq in 2011.


The real danger is one that America has faced every time it has waged a war against a guerrilla force. Henry Kissinger described the dilemma memorably in a Foreign Affairs essay written prior to his appointment as national security adviser in 1969. The United States seeks a positive goal: to gain territory and establish effective government. The guerrillas seek a negative goal: disruption. While the United States pursues a military strategy, the guerrillas have a psychological strategy -- to exhaust America's willpower. America loses by not winning; the guerrillas win by not losing.

The Taliban have gone one step further than a guerrilla operation, having established their own governance independent from the Afghan national government in some areas. But the group's core strategy appears to be to wait out the United States. And Trump, for his part, too often confesses that he has lost any appetite to stay on.

The president deserves credit, however, for authorizing a series of negotiations in Doha between a special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Taliban. Those negotiations have made some headway. The next step is for the talks to broaden to involve the Afghan government. The end result would be a national unity government that includes both the current Afghan government and the Taliban. It may sound far-fetched, but it could be achieved in phases, over time.

The crucial issue for Washington is to ensure that it does not make concessions that are hard to reverse -- like drawing down troops -- while the Taliban make paper commitments that they can easily violate. The former ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, worries that we may be watching a replay of Vietnam, in which the United States got commitments from North Vietnam in return for its withdrawal. But once American troops were gone, North Vietnam reneged on those commitments and invaded South Vietnam.

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The most effective way to ensure this does not happen in Afghanistan is for Washington to delay the troop drawdowns until tangible gains have been made in terms of political power sharing and national reconciliation. It can push the Taliban to keep their promises by formally bringing neighboring powers like China and Iran into the discussions. (Yes, one of the many costs of cutting off all contact with Iran is that it cannot be useful in stabilizing Afghanistan -- a role it played effectively after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.)

Moreover, there are some indications of a change in Pakistan's attitude toward Afghanistan. The government has reportedly helped facilitate the talks between the U.S. and the Taliban. The new prime minister, Imran Khan, has stated that his country no longer seeks to maintain "strategic depth" in the region by keeping Afghanistan in permanent chaos. If he means it, and if he can control the Pakistani military -- a big caveat -- this marks a positive shift for the whole region.

"Trust but verify," Ronald Reagan said, and that should be the mantra for these negotiations. Everyone will seek gains from America upfront in return for promises to be fulfilled later. Washington should not be fooled.

The United States has achieved much in Afghanistan. The country is in a decent place after 40 years of civil war and Taliban rule. One example: There were about 1 million Afghan children in school under the Taliban; today there are more than 9 million. The terrorist organization that the Taliban harbored, al-Qaida, has been severely weakened. The costs for America today -- 14,000 troops -- are not nearly what they once were. America could cut that number even further while still maintaining order in Afghanistan and fighting terrorism. But first Washington needs to make sure it doesn't just end the war but wins the peace.

Fareed Zakaria's email address is comments@fareedzakaria.com.

© 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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