Unless the United States wishes to fight an open-ended war in Afghanistan for decades to come, it has to reconcile with the Taliban. This was the basic takeaway of an event, “Afghanistan: The Reconciliation Option,” held today at the Stimson Center, a think tank focused on international peace and security in Washington, DC. The key participant at the event was Amb. Richard Olson, who served as the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan from November 2015 to November 2016.
Ambassador Olson penned an op-ed last week in the New York Times where he noted that the U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan for the same length of time that the U.S. military was active during Civil War and Reconstruction combined (16 years). In Olson’s view, the war can end only “through a political settlement, a process through which the Afghan government and the Taliban would reconcile their differences in an agreement also acceptable to the international community.”
Elaborating on this idea at today’s event, Olson noted that the three other options for the United States in Afghanistan were implausible for various political, logistical, and geostrategic reasons.
The first of these options would be for the U.S. to simply cut its losses and leave. This, however, brings to mind a similar American policy in 1989, when the U.S. left Afghanistan to its own devices after the Soviet Union withdrew from that country. This would result in the reemergence of ungoverned spaces and almost guarantee a need for the U.S. to return to Afghanistan at some point, according to Olson.
Alternatively, the United States could launch a large-scale operation to defeat the Taliban, but Olson noted that the American public has no appetite for such a surge. Additionally, the Taliban cannot be fully defeated as long as elements of the movement find sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan.
A third idea would be for some U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan to take part in counterterrorism operations, but this would require an almost open-ended commitment to fighting an enemy that has security ties to not only Pakistan, but also Iran, and possibly Russia. This would be fighting for the sake of fighting; as Olson notes in his op-ed, there is an absence of a clear statement of objectives the U.S. wants to attain in Afghanistan in the current discourse on the issue.
Therefore, the solution is a political settlement. As Ambassador Olson pointed out, the U.S. has “no fundamental quarrel” with the Taliban, though it disagrees with much of what that movement stands for. (This is in fact, true, of many of the groups that the U.S. opposes for no good reason.)
Olson believes that most of elements of the Taliban are pragmatic enough to abandon their relationship with al-Qaeda for international recognition, since at heart, the organization is nationalistic and not internationalist in nature, and wants to benefit economically from Afghanistan’s resources.
Moreover, Pakistan is not going to stop supporting the Taliban because it sees Afghanistan in the context of its strategy of “strategic depth,” which is the idea that Pakistan must control Afghanistan so as not to have an enemy on its western border in order to avoid a two-front war with India, and to have a place to retreat to in case of an Indian advance from the east. Pakistan is unlikely to back off from such a vital interest until its relations improve with India. Even U.S. sanctions are unlikely to dissuade Pakistan from this path.
Therefore, as Ambassador Olson argues, negotiating with the Taliban and giving them a slice of power in return for some concessions is the only reasonable path forward for a peaceful settlement in that country. Although some of the concessions the U.S. would need to make to the Taliban would rouse opposition on many fronts in the West, in security agencies, and among human rights groups, this would be far better than an open-ended, endless, aimless war that has so far been inconclusive.
Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative. He also writes for The National Interest and The Diplomat.