Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration’s chief negotiator with the Taliban, has endured a lot of pressure in the last week. Former U.S. ambassadors, Fox News pundits, and think tank analysts alike have denounced his draft agreement in full without knowing what is in the final document.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s advisers have already expressed that the terms of the accord “need serious debate and revision.” Words such as “surrender,” “defeat,” and “abandonment” are being tossed in the air as if the United States has an obligation to serve as the Afghan government’s defenders in perpetuity.
Khalilzad and his boss, President Trump, will feel even more heat as additional details become available to the public. Trump’s cancellation on September 7 of a direct meeting between himself, the Taliban, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is a blinking red light that the president is increasingly experiencing second-thoughts about the entire process. So it is as good a time as any to reexamine the usual myths that will resurface in editorials and television segments over the ensuing weeks as opponents try to tank any agreement that could conclude U.S. involvement in this 18-year war.
Myth 1: The U.S. Is Signing Its Own Defeat
Career Ambassador Ryan Crocker and others have categorized a negotiated withdrawal from Afghanistan as a humiliating retreat à la Vietnam, 1973. The argument is meant to strike a chord in American policymakers who are concerned with defending their reputations in the history books and wary of being on the wrong side of the Beltway-fueled “Who lost Afghanistan?” debate.
But using the word “defeat” and “Afghanistan” in the same sentence is based on emotion rather than fact. In reality, the United States achieved its sole national security objective in the South Asian country as far back as early 2002, when a combination of U.S. air power, intelligence assets, and special operations forces in coordination with anti-Taliban militias swept the Taliban from Kabul, obliterated al-Qaeda’s terrorist infrastructure, and forced Osama Bin Laden into hiding.
To characterize withdrawal now as “losing” the war is a simplistic and inaccurate narrative, which totally loses sight of the central reason the United States used military force in Afghanistan in the first place: to punish the organization responsible for 9/11 and send a message to anyone who would even think about partnering with such a group in the future.
Myth 2: The Taliban Will Welcome Al-Qaeda Back
A core principle of the emerging deal is a Taliban commitment to prevent terrorist groups from using territory under its control to plan and launch attacks against the American people. Many people in Washington don’t buy the premise. The Taliban and al-Qaeda, they argue, are deeply linked after more than 20 years of cooperation. Moreover, the thinking goes, the Taliban is fundamentally untrustworthy, which suggests it would be the height of folly to take Taliban promises seriously.
While it is true the Taliban has no interest in negotiating peace with a government in Kabul they label as a foreign proxy, the Taliban of 2019 is not the Taliban of 2001, and the Taliban-AQ nexus has always been far more complicated and acrimonious than analysts in the West understand. The Taliban regime was never especially thrilled to have Bin Laden planning attacks from Afghan soil, particularly when the target was a superpower that could rain hell and fury on Afghanistan at will.
Mullah Mohammed Omar and his lieutenants learned this lesson the hard way. In the years since the Taliban lost its emirate, fighters and officials alike have spoken of their regret for letting Bin Laden treat Taliban-controlled Afghanistan as his personal terrorist fiefdom.
With this history in mind, one can make a persuasive case that the Taliban has an incentive to avoid committing similar mistakes and to keep their distance from al-Qaeda. Having experienced the wrath of the U.S. military and the collapse of its former government, current Taliban leadership will think twice before reverting to the prior arrangement. The Taliban knowing now what it didn’t then, can anyone say with a straight face that its leaders would make the same exact choices again?
Myth 3: If U.S. Troops Leave, Afghanistan Will Be a Terrorist Playground Again
Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both wanted to extricate the United States from an expensive and directionless war that has long lost its purpose. But both ended up backtracking on those campaign pledges due to poor advice from their military advisers, a belief that stronger military pressure would force the Taliban into more concessions, and a fear of what would happen in Afghanistan once Washington cut its losses.
However, assuming a post-U.S. Afghanistan would descend into a cauldron of terrorism, in which al-Qaeda and the Islamic State run wild, is a bad assumption to make — not necessarily because it is silly, but because this hypothesis discounts the actions of regional powers who have as much of a security interest in keeping terrorist groups in check as the United States does.
Russia, Pakistan, India, Iran, and the former Soviet republics in Central Asia have plenty of differences, but they agree in not wanting to see Afghanistan become a place where enemies of the state can easily plan operations against them. Believing a U.S. troop departure will translate into a boon for terrorists ignores the interests of Afghanistan’s neighbors, all of whom will work to prevent such a development.
After 18 years, thousands of casualties, and a price tag that could be as high as $1 trillion, the United States has done all it can in Afghanistan. Instead of finding excuses to stay, it’s time to come home.