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Dialogue With Taliban the Only Way Out of Afghanistan

It’s past time the United States did some soul-searching and accept responsibility for exacerbating an unwinnable war in Afghanistan. This will require a rethink of Washington’s current handling of Afghanistan and indeed its entire view of the region. Steve Coll recently made a cogent argument [1] in the New York Times that the U.S. should seriously engage with China and other regional powers. However, this is impossible so long as Washington remains convinced that Pakistan alone is the primary impediment to peace rather than its own mistakes.

Initially, the Pentagon approached Afghanistan as a special operations-dominated theater with the goal of eradicating high value members of al-Qaeda. The rationale behind pouring further resources into Afghanistan after those targets departed was the fear that a failed state would become a terrorist safe haven. But this only makes sense if it is accepted that unlimited power projection and nation-building are both sustainable and desirable.

Numerous failed states around the world have become susceptible to violent non-state actors. Afghanistan was just one of last year’s 15 most fragile countries [2] based on factors like societal cohesion, poverty, and political legitimacy. Yet rather than deploy large numbers of troops to multiple failed states, America chose instead to ramp up drone strikes and special operations activities. Nevertheless, Washington still has a troop presence in Afghanistan and refuses to leave.

At times more than 100,000 U.S. troops have been stationed in Afghanistan and foreign troops [3] have numbered a few thousand to over 40,000. Allied boots on the ground from countries such as the U.K. and Australia have been able to significantly impact the battle space and have fought in some of the most volatile parts of Afghanistan, including Helmand’s notoriously dangerous Sangin Valley [4]. I served in support of the Australian-led Special Operations Task Group, which at its height pacified large swaths of Uruzgan province. Not only did these militaries take casualties for an American-led war, they were force multipliers in the U.S. fight against the Taliban.

American soldiers also served alongside less capable allies. U.S. Marines have lauded the Georgian army for its enthusiasm and bravery while also complaining of incompetent soldiers who went into battle lacking basic combat skills. One explanation for the outsized role of Georgia’s inexperienced military [5] was their immunity from Washington’s oversight and U.S. public opinion. But the more relevant reason had little to do with Afghanistan. Tbilisi naively hoped Georgia could earn U.S. protection in future conflicts with Russia while Washington’s own hubris led it to think that this would deter Moscow’s expansionist ambitions. Yet Georgia still moved further into Moscow’s orbit [6]. This is emblematic of Washington’s overall approach to Afghanistan: refusing to leave while holding it hostage to peripheral geopolitical concerns.

The five countries that matter most for Afghanistan’s future are Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, and India. Washington policymakers still largely view influence abroad as a zero-sum game with Russia and China, especially as the latter considers its own military base in Afghanistan. A CNN report last summer that suggested Russia is arming the Taliban [7] without concrete evidence also exacerbated the situation. This prevents close cooperation even though neither country has an interest in a failed Afghanistan or one controlled by Islamists. Sour relations between Washington and Moscow have also made it difficult to seriously consider northern NATO supply routes through the Central Asian republics.

Moving military supplies through Iran remains impossible even as trade with Afghanistan increases. It didn’t have to be this way. Shortly after 9/11, there was limited cooperation between Iran and the U.S. Tehran had its own grievances with the Taliban, including the group’s 1998 murder of 11 Iranian diplomats in Mazar-i-Sharif, and had even considered its own invasion of Afghanistan (instead it opted to lend material support to the Northern Alliance). The potential partnership was not to survive the mutual rhetoric of the Bush and Ahmadinejad administrations, however.

Pakistan’s initial reluctance to partner with the U.S. in the War on Terror was understandable given valid fears that a new government in Kabul might challenge its border or result in a bloody sectarian conflict. However, Pakistani policymakers are fooling themselves if they think that Islamabad’s cordial relationship with the Taliban could have maintained peace had it not been for 9/11, since a similar event was likely to happen anyway.


Both Islamabad and Washington compete to wear the cloak of victimhood. Pakistan remains in denial about its support of the Haqqani Network and other militant groups, while the U.S. has failed to acknowledge Pakistan’s staggering losses, with the recent suicide bombing in Swat sending more innocent lives to the morgue. Washington further irks Islamabad by refusing to officially validate its concerns about India’s activities in Afghanistan. Yet former secretary of defense Chuck Hagel admitted, “India for some time has always used Afghanistan as a second front.” Islamabad knows that the U.S. is regionally isolated, and President Trump’s attempt to change Pakistan’s behavior has only served to alienate it further.

Last week, General Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee that he speaks to his Pakistani counterpart weekly and is seeing “positive indicators.” Nevertheless, in June, Pakistan will be placed on the gray list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) [8] for its support of terrorism even though key members doubt that action’s potential effectiveness. With the Afghan government proposing talks with the Taliban [9] that could include a ceasefire and prisoner exchange, now is the time for the U.S. to prioritize diplomacy over coercion. Barnett Rubin’s recent open letter to the Taliban [10] is an authoritative recounting of missed opportunities for peace. While Rubin places some blame on Pakistan, he reminds us that the Taliban remain independent and it is a deficit of diplomacy that has strengthened their clandestine alliances.

To resolve the Afghan war the U.S. must seriously engage Moscow and Beijing, thereby indirectly reaching Tehran as well. President Trump should use his budding relationship with Prime Minister Modi to demand that India invest in Afghanistan but resist the urge to harass Pakistan. The Pentagon must swallow the bitter pill of a counterinsurgency defeat because surges and air strikes will not end this conflict. President Trump must acknowledge that his refusal to announce a timeline for departure is meaningless when regional players know the U.S. will eventually have to leave. An end to the war in Afghanistan lies in dialogue and if Washington doesn’t adapt it will soon get left behind.

Adam Weinstein is a veteran of the Marine Corps and served in Afghanistan. He has written on South Asia and U.S. foreign policy for The National Interest, Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, and other outlets.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Dialogue With Taliban the Only Way Out of Afghanistan"

#1 Comment By mohammad On March 5, 2018 @ 11:29 pm

the subtitle of this post should rather be: And we should be talking to Tehran and maybe even to Moscow, Beijing!

Why? Because the one country which is going to be most affected by what will happen in Afghanistan would be Iran, and because Iran is, together with Pakistan, the most important player there right now.

And believe me: Iranian regime, whatever bad its behavior may appear to you, would love to see Afghanistan stabilized and free from war. Nobody likes a permanent failed state at its neighbor (except maybe Israel, which seems delighted at failed states at its borders).

However, Iran should be satisfied that the stabilized Afghanistan is not going to have a government hostile to Iran.

#2 Comment By Michael On March 6, 2018 @ 12:03 am

Libertarianism is a mental disorder.

#3 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 6, 2018 @ 6:21 am

U.S. elites believe they can continue to wage these wars forever, because they occur in foreign peoples’ lands without any harm accruing to themselves with only minor sustainable blowback that only affects those here who are unimportant collateral damage, but still useful for propaganda for continuing the forever wars. What is the upside for them for ending continuous warfare that is personally cost free and in fact has for them many benefits? Ending wars would be a downside, with loss of profit streams – one could say in the modern era where there is now no accountability to the people over the wars, without even representatives’ votes required to wage them, that the definition of defeat is a war that ends, while victory is wars that never will end.

#4 Comment By John Y On March 6, 2018 @ 7:52 am

We have reached a point in time where it is a reflexive instinct for anyone writing anything anywhere in the world to criticize how the United States acted. To do so makes the author’s conclusions seem unassailable. It is the national security realm equivalent of citing climate change as the reason for any observed ill. Anyone opining on national security affairs believes the United States should have the clairvoyance and omnipotence to not only arrange perfect outcomes, but assure that no one anywhere is unsatisfied with them.

Nowhere does the author mention the sheer incompetence and mind-boggling levels of corruption at all levels of the Afghan government. Nor does he mention Hamid Karzai’s imbalanced mental state. We only ever had very limited influence over these things.

The terrain of Afghanistan is a staggering obstacle, as the author is well aware. But the biggest problem with our response in Afghanistan was that the Iraq war sucked up most of the national security resources available at the time. We fought an unnecessary two-front war with predictable consequences. This is unmentioned in the article.

You don’t think anyone ever thought of negotiating a cease-fire with the Taliban before? They want to become the Afghani government (again), and will accept nothing less. And they know they will win too, six months after the United States stops propping up the Afghani Army. Why should they negotiate? They have good reason to believe they can still win. Their will to fight hasn’t been close to broken. You should discuss ways to break them to your will first before you argue for negotiations.

At some point in the late 1960s the Islamic world declared war on the West, and they’re not remotely done fighting. Gold Meir once famously said that this will continue until they love their children more than they hate us. In a way, this is much bigger than Afghani Taliban.

Each and every war is violent, confused and messy, outcomes are not guaranteed, and obviously the United States has responded imperfectly. But what other nation in history could have done a better job if handed the steaming mess that was world events on 12 Sep 2001? People need to stop demanding an unreasonable level of perfection from the US government. It’s not helpful.

#5 Comment By Mike Garrett On March 6, 2018 @ 9:21 am

Afghanistan has one dominant tribe, the largest, the Pashtun, now is generally referred to by the press as “the Taliban.” Since the wars with the British they had nominal control through a Pashtun king, though most of the government was run by the more urban and educated Farsi/Persian speaking minority Tajiks. There are also other tribal groups like the Turkmen, Uzbeks, Balouch, and Hazaras living in various parts of the country.

Things rolled along under a somewhat distant kings until the Vikings arrived on another of their rampages with their childish egalitarian visions. Though the British fought hard and failed, until the Russians and Americans came in the Afghans had resisted becoming just another third world nation overwhelmed by the Viking military and trade advantages. The Afghans were a beautiful and proud people exporting food with a zero carbon footprint. The silly idea that they had anything whatever to do with 9 11 is purely a fantasy cooked up by the Zionist led Americans and believed by their gullible little European slave nations.

The Afghans had for centuries been literate Zoroastrians, sophisticated monotheists, when Alexander of Macedon took Balkh in the fourth century BC. Their countryside, until recently at least, was dotted with shrines to Muslim holy men that people frequently visited. The Vikings: the English, Scandinavians, Dutch, Germans etc, not to mention the Americans, were all totally illiterate in 800 AD, a time when Abassid Baghdad was a city with a million people. At that time in Baghdad over half the population were Christians and Jews. Before the Americans came, when I roamed Afghanistan the Afghans often invited me to join them at the mosque for prayers, and Jews I know had the same experience. We are considered by Afghans to be fellow “people of the book.” Treating the Afghans as poor ignorant savages with a violent nature and primitive beliefs the way the American press and Hollywood continually do is as wild a distortion of reality as it is possible to achieve.

#6 Comment By Will Harrington On March 6, 2018 @ 11:43 am

John Y

then what, do you propose, is a reasonable level of, if not perfection, then competence that we the people should demand of OUR government? 9/11 was a long time ago and we proved our point and achieved the goal. We killed Bin Laden. As we continue to fight without being able to destroy the Taliban and create a stable state, we damage our reputation for military competence and political benevolence a little more as every day passes. I do not expect perfection, but that is not the same as saying I will issue a license for stupidity or maliciousness.

#7 Comment By Will Harrington On March 6, 2018 @ 11:54 am

Mike Garrett

Your failure to understand European history and your lumping in of various people groups under a job description (viking) and declaring that they were all totally illiterate in 800 AD (including one notable nationality that would not exist for almost a millennium) indicates either a profound historical ignorance or a hatred of Europe that would indicate that is equally biased and simplified but for the opposite effect. It is hard to criticize Europeans for colonialism and empire building and go on to praise the Afghans when the glaring example of the Mughals and their conquest of most of India shows them to be, when the opportunity arises, cut from the same cloth. Aurangzeb was certainly no prize. History shows that people are people. If you were a foreigner roaming America, you would likely find your experience to be pretty much the same as experience you had in afghanistan.

#8 Comment By Rahmani On March 6, 2018 @ 12:26 pm

This is an excellent piece but a timetable will not bring the Taliban into negotiation. We (US-Afghan) have experience of timetables therefore, should not repeat that mistake. Since the Taliban are losing public support, Pakistan is losing trade benefits, and both are losing Afghanistan overall, they should consider president Ghani’s offer. Meanwhile, US should pressure Pakistan to bring China, Russia, and Iran on to the table. Pakistan is responsible of keeping Taliban and Haqqani is proxies and its responsible to end this conflict. Of course Pakistan will have all players on its side if it chooses to stop sponsoring terrorism and back peace negotiations.

#9 Comment By Michael Kenny On March 6, 2018 @ 12:48 pm

I wondered how far down the article I’d have to go before I came to the pro-Putin plug: “Yet Georgia still moved further into Moscow’s orbit”. Needless to say, the article linked to says the opposite: “Stability and security cannot be maintained with … Russia’s paradigm of having special rights towards other countries,” said Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, Georgia remains unshakably committed to eventual membership in NATO and the E.U”. That doesn’t sound very much like “moving into Moscow’s orbit”!

#10 Comment By philadelphialawyer On March 6, 2018 @ 5:31 pm

I don’t know that we need to “dialogue” with the Taliban. What we need is to pull out of Afghanistan, and Central Asia generally. If the US can’t help but be involved in that region, then there really is no hope for us.

Central Asia, without our sticking our nose in, is already contested ground for not only Arab-sponsored Sunni extremism, but also for the Turks, the Iranians, the Pakistanis, India, China, Russia, and, of course, the locals of mind-numbingly various tribes, religions, ethnicities, nationalities and so on. A natural balance of power, without our having to do a bloody thing, already exists. Why does the US have to be there? We have no treaty allies anywhere nearby (Pakistan is no longer a treaty ally). We have no vital interests in the region. No cultural or historical affinities for any of the actors. No important trade partners. And the region is on the other side of the world from the USA, with, no matter how you get there, at least one ocean and half of the largest land mass on the planet between us and them. If another Al Queda starts up there, we can always smash it from the sky with drones, missiles and bombers. Or, if need be, special forces raids. We simply don’t have to be involved in state or nation building, keeping more or less purely local extremists like the Taliban out of power.

So, contrary to John Y’s claims, we have no compelling rationale to be there. That certain Muslims hate us is no reason for us to spend the rest of the century trying to get them to love their children more by killing them. Perhaps, just maybe, if we stop killing them, they would start doing the latter more than the former. Certainly, Golda Meir is no one to cite for even trying along those lines. And the facts that our clients are garbage and the terrain is hostile are even more reasons for leaving, not staying.

#11 Comment By E.J. Smith On March 8, 2018 @ 10:30 am

As stated repeatedly, the mission in Afghanistan was to capture Bin Laden and to deprive Al Qaeda of its base of operations in that country. It was doomed to failure when our own supposed ‘allies’ participated in the obfuscation that allowed Bin Laden and the rest of Al Qaeda leadership to slip out of Tora Bora and into Pakistan. It was further doomed when Bush, Jr./ diverted troops for the Iraq War.

After that point the operation changed to supporting the regime in Kabul. With Pakistan providing a safe haven and the ISI logistical support to the Taliban there’s very little American and allied troops can accomplish.

Anyone with knowledge of Afghan history and culture, as well Soviet and British experience with ‘nation-building’ in that country, would have known that the mission was doomed.

When ten years of Viet Nam-like ‘search-and-destroy’ missions and 100,000-plus troops during the Obama Surge failed to result in the Taliban’s final defeat, the light should have gone on.

In my humble opinion, I am afraid that our military and policy-makers are being disingenuous when they suggest that they have an ‘end-game’ and victory is “within our grasp.” It isn’t, absent a multilateral solution that includes the U.N., China, Russia, India, and Pakistan, or 300,000 primarily U.S. troops engaged in a protracted war on the Taliban to retake the country province by province.