There is a lot we don’t know about the ongoing peace negotiations between the United States and the Taliban that are currently happening in Doha, Qatar. For one, we have no clue whether a deal will actually be signed.
We don’t know if the Taliban can be trusted to fulfill their commitments, nor is there a guarantee that the movement will be content with sharing political power with the same people they have fought for the last 17 years. We don’t know if the Taliban will even negotiate directly with the Afghan government, an entity the group considers a delegitimate puppet of western powers. And we can’t say for certain if Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will risk whatever is left of his political credibility to negotiate some of the Taliban’s key demands, such as a revision of the Afghan constitution.
What we can be reasonably certain of, however, is that some of the same people who have worked the Afghanistan file in previous administrations—and those in the commentariat who have long cheered on an indefinite U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan—are petrified at the notion of President Trump pulling American soldiers out.
Ryan Crocker, a U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan in the Obama administration, penned an op-ed in the Washington Post comparing the current U.S. talks with the Taliban with the 1972-1973 Paris peace talks ending the Vietnam War, a comparison meant to paint a picture of a disgraced and defeated United States capitulating to the insurgents.
Just as Washington withdrew in Vietnam, Crocker argues, Trump is in danger of making the United States look like a paper tiger now. It was a sentiment eagerly retweeted by Bill Kristol of the now defunct Weekly Standard and Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post—two interventionists who have a remarkable track-record of being breathtakingly wrong.
These failed pundits’ efforts are meant to shame President Trump into reversing his instinct to pull the United States out of Afghanistan. The editorials and tweets tapped into fear rather than facts; predict Armageddon to frighten U.S. policymakers into continuing the status-quo; and create an eruption and panic about how terrible it would be if America turned tail.
To Washington establishment, withdrawing from an unwinnable conflict is synonymous with losing, while staying on the endless merry-go-round that is the war in Afghanistan is an illustration of victory and resolve—even if the ride eventually breaks down and sends you to the hospital.
The establishment is correct in one respect: a U.S. withdrawal will likely be painful for many Afghans. The Taliban will further consolidate its control over Afghanistan’s southern provinces, perhaps amassing the strength to take control of several provincial capitals. The Afghan army—an overstretched, beleaguered, and exhausted force that has suffered 45,000 fatalities since Ashraf Ghani moved into the presidential palace in September 2014—will be forced to make some very difficult choices in terms of which terrain to defend and which to cede to the insurgents.
More Afghan civilians will die as fighting on the ground escalates and Afghanistan’s neighbors throw resources behind their favorite proxies in order to secure some influence in the country. Afghanistan, to put it bluntly, will remain one of the most violent nations on the planet for a long time to come.
None of these painful realizations, however, diminishes the main point: after 2,419 American troop deaths, approximately $1 trillion in taxpayer money (the United States spent $45 billion alone on the war last year), and 17 years of blood-stained effort, the United States is incapable of resolving Afghanistan’s political problems. Those problems could fill an entire encyclopedia, from systemic political corruption, warlordism, and ethnic infighting to significant economic underdevelopment, oversized bureaucracy, and an absence of government authority in rural areas.
Not one item on the list can be permanently solved by the U.S. military. In a world increasingly defined by great power competition, arguing that it’s in America’s best interests to do so is indefensible.
After a decade and a half of being stuck in a morass, it’s easy to forget why the United States is involved in Afghanistan in the first place. The Afghanistan mission wasn’t originally about spreading democracy into Central Asia, engineering a western free-market economy from scratch, or engaging in a social science experiment. It was about striking back hard against Osama Bin Laden’s al Qaeda network, exacting revenge for the deaths of those lost on 9/11, and sending a clear message to any other terrorist organization around the world that thought it should emulate 9/11.
The U.S. mission was also about punishing the Taliban regime that allowed al Qaeda to operate on Afghan soil. Washington achieved all of those objectives months into the Afghan military campaign. Yet rather than declaring victory and withdrawing, the Bush administration enlarged the mission from counterterrorism to transforming a country at the bottom of the human development index into a microcosm of western ideals and progressivism.
With such long odds, is it any wonder why the strategy is a misguided failure? The blob in the Beltway either ignores or is incapable of understanding that the American people have long grown disillusioned with Afghanistan.
A 41 percent plurality would approve of a U.S. troop pullout, according to an AP-NORC poll released this week. Forty-nine percent of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center say the United States has failed to achieve its goals in Afghanistan, likely because those goals were far beyond the purview of American troops. The foreign policy consensus held by the majority of lawmakers, pundits, and experts on both sides of the political divide is simply out-of-step with the average American.
We should all hope Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, can work his magic and come out of the talks with a conflict-ending peace agreement. But if the talks become bogged down in petty disagreements between the Afghan parties, as is likely, and Khalilzad is unable to report favorably to the White House, it defies sanity for the administration to take the advice of the very people who got Afghanistan so wrong.
The United States has done all it can in Afghanistan. It’s time to come home. If not now, when?