Why No Deal is Needed with the Taliban
The U.S. should withdraw from Afghanistan and tend to its own interests. Let local powers worry about theirs.
As President Trump moves forward with his plan to withdraw the United States from Afghanistan, a new talking point has emerged among those who would like the United States to stay.
According to current and former government officials, the Taliban cannot be trusted. The argument is that the militant group has proven over the years that it will break any agreement it has reached if doing so accords with its ideological or political interests. According to one scholar, “what we judge the Taliban on is whether they honor the deal.”
Unfortunately, this argument avoids clear thinking about what the vital American national security interests are in Afghanistan, and how to best achieve them. Nearly two decades ago, the United States invaded that country in response to the 9/11 attacks. There was no evidence that Mullah Omar and his government approved of Bin Laden’s plans, or were even aware of them. It is likely they were not, as it was clear to the entire world that a terrorist strike against the United States would end the regime.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the Taliban expressed a willingness to hand over Bin Laden, but demanded evidence and wanted to negotiate the terms. The Bush administration was in no mood for discussions, and military operations to remove the Taliban began about two weeks later.
The Taliban showed no inclination to attack American territory before 9/11, and it has not done so since. Its goal has always simply been to rule over Afghanistan, a country that means little to American interests. Given that the United States went into the country for the purposes of responding to and fighting terrorism, in principle a deal should have been easy to work out.
As the Afghanistan Papers reveal, however, what began as a counter-terrorism war morphed into nation building. Particularly after the failure to find WMDs in Iraq, the Bush administration began to justify its seemingly pointless wars by framing them as struggles for democracy. President Obama came into office skeptical of an open-ended commitment, but was pressured into adopting the kind of counter-insurgency (COIN) mission favored by top military officials. The increase in funding and American troop commitment to Afghanistan coincided with more violence and the Kabul government losing more territory, discrediting the theory of nation-building underlying COIN.
Just as in fall 2001, today the U.S. has no interest in a long-term occupation of Afghanistan, and the Taliban has no interest in attacking the United States. No deal between the two sides is necessary. President Trump can simply withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, as he has been promising to do for years, and the Taliban’s sense of self-preservation should be enough to prevent it from allowing its country to be used as a base for terrorist attacks. In seeking to come back into political power and while facing rival insurgents, the Taliban will have its plate full at home without picking another fight with the United States.
A more serious concern is that the United States leaving Afghanistan would lead to the Taliban eventually replacing the Kabul government. Indeed, the movement has lasted twenty years under pressure from the most powerful military in the world, taking large swaths of territory from a central government receiving overwhelming military and financial support from abroad. Given the extent to which the Taliban has proved itself as a fighting force over two decades, it looks possible it would be able to take power once the United States withdrew.
Even if this is true, few Americans believe that which government rules Kabul is a vital national security interest of the United States. If, after twenty years, the government we have supported is no closer to complete control over its territory than it has been before, it is time to acknowledge that our experiment in nation building has failed. The current government of Afghanistan rests on the agreement and consent of warlords, the likes of which cut deals with the Taliban before and could do so again.
Many citizens prefer the courts and criminal justice system of the Taliban over the central government, seeing the former as less corrupt, better able to provide security, and more consistent with the people’s conservative religious values. Even by the measure of humanitarian concerns, while the central government is in many ways less brutal than the Taliban was, the U.S. occupation has done little to improve the well-being of the Afghan people.
The U.S. should waste no time in withdrawing all American forces from Afghanistan, acknowledging the Taliban as a legitimate player in the future of that country and establishing open dialogue with the group.
Deluding ourselves into believing the Afghan government can stand on its own simply avoids the much-needed honest assessment of the balance of power on the ground.
Advocates of continuing the war in Afghanistan want to make the issue about whether the Taliban can be trusted. But no trust is necessary; all one needs to see the way forward is a clear understanding of American national security interests and the incentives and goals of the militant organization. From that perspective, the best choice for the United States is a clear commitment to withdrawal, regardless of whether or not we are able to achieve a comprehensive deal before doing so.
Richard Hanania is a Research Fellow at Defense Priorities and the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.