By Jack Segal | Oct. 12, 2019
When I made my 40th — and final — trip to Afghanistan in 2010, I thought the end of our Afghan nightmare was in sight. I was wrong. Now, eight-plus years later, we still cling to the same goals for that country that we defined at the beginning, when we established the Afghanistan Freedom Support Act of 2002: “to establish a broad-based, gender sensitive, multi-ethnic and fully representative government.” Really.
In late 2001 we demanded that the Taliban government turn over Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaida criminals to us. When they refused, we toppled the Taliban regime and established a semblance of control over the entire country. But we were pushing on an open door. The Taliban saw no gain in standing and fighting, so they simply “went to ground” — they were not defeated. In those early days, U.S. troops were welcomed as liberators and, by many Afghans, as saviors. No more.
Now, 18 years later, at a July 22 meeting with Pakistani President Imran Khan, President Trump boasted that he could have had Afghanistan “wiped off the face of the earth” but did not “want to kill 10 million people.” That threat worried many Afghans who know U.S. air power first-hand. Mr. Trump told reporters that Pakistan would help negotiate peace in Afghanistan and help us “extricate ourselves” from the conflict. This was news to the Ghani government in Kabul, which views Pakistan’s not-so-covert decades-long support for the Taliban as a root cause of the ongoing insurgency.
To that point, the year-long talks between the Taliban and U.S. Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad (a U.S. Ambassador of Afghan descent) excluded the government in Kabul. They produced a draft deal for a partial withdrawal of the remaining 14,000 U.S. troops, if the Taliban promises to halt its attacks. But Khalilzad needed President Trump to endorse the deal.
The President jumped into the process at an Aug. 30 meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Ambassador Khalilzad, and then National Security Adviser John Bolton. A suggestion to finalize the negotiations in Washington appealed to the president’s penchant for diplomatic drama.
The president promptly announced a Camp David meeting between the Taliban, Khalilzad, and the Afghan government (which had never endorsed Khalilzad’s negotiating efforts). But very quickly, it became obvious, even to President Trump, that inviting Taliban leaders to Camp David to endorse a partial deal after sidelining Afghanistan’s legitimate government was a bad idea. Trump abruptly withdrew the invitation.
The Taliban overplayed their hand shortly thereafter: On Sept. 9 the group claimed credit for a suicide attack in central Kabul that killed an American soldier. President Trump announced that talks with the Taliban were “dead.”
Then, without explanation, on Oct. 2, the president re-started negotiations by sending Ambassador Khalilzad to Pakistan for talks with Taliban leaderMullah Berader and Pakistan’s foreign minister. But the Afghan government — rejected as a “puppet” regime by the Taliban — still wasn’t included in the talks. Meanwhile,Afghan President Ghani’s opposition to the draft peace agreement text between the U.S. and the Taliban so annoyed President Trump that he withdrew Ghani’s invitation to Washington.
In recent weeks, Ghani’s National Security Adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, delivered a tough message to the U.N. General Assembly and to Washington elites. He warned a Council on Foreign Relations audience that “the Taliban are not ready to make peace with anybody. They are ready to take over Afghanistan and return their regime [to power].”
Mohib also warned that the Khalilzad-Taliban talks “are not peace negotiations. [Those] would be between the Afghan government and the insurgents … [W]hile the U.S. can negotiate its withdrawal with whomever it wants, it should be doing this through the legitimate partner in whom you have invested so much.” (Read: the Ghani government.) Mohib warned, “The Taliban are not a government in waiting; they are an insurgency that is fighting against its own people … I don’t think the free world would sit and watch a regime like that to return to Afghanistan.”
In case you need a bit more complexity, Afghanistan held a presidential election Sept. 28. Results are not yet tabulated, and charges of voting fraud have been lodged by all sides. The leading candidates are the two current “co-leaders,” President Ghani and “Chief Executive” Abdullah — the naming of Abdullah as chief executive is an arrangement the U.S. brokered to avoid a civil war after the country’s flawed 2014 election) — and a third possible compromise candidate, former Interior MinisterMohammad Hanif Atmar.
Ghani’s has made clear his disagreements with President Trump. It’s uncertain whether Abdullah or Atmar might seek a separate deal with President Trump as the votes are counted. Might President Trump help rig an election to suit his purposes? You be the judge.
Given our volatile president’s nature and his desire for some results before his re-election campaign goes into high gear, I expect Trump to reprise that dramatic Taliban meeting. If the Afghan president cries “foul,” he’ll soon find himself in the same doghouse as many of our other former allies, or out on the street.
We’re at the end of this road, and the view is not pretty. There is no military solution. Our dreams about ending corruption, establishing a gender-sensitive democracy, and creating a unified state are just that: dreams. Is the American public ready to abandon those dreams and those of many Afghans, especially women? Do we have a choice? Pulling out and turning things over to local leaders to sort out who should rule their country is not a pretty picture. But we did it in Vietnam, and we’re doing it now in Syria. Time to go.
Jack Segal is a retired US and NATO diplomat. He was chief political advisor to NATO’s operational commander in Afghanistan from 2002-2010.