The president’s good call on Afghan negotiations The United States doesn’t need an agreement with the Taliban that badly and neither does Afghanistan
President Trump made a good call in cancelling a meeting in which he was scheduled to host a face-to-face negotiation between the Afghan president and Taliban representatives. Although ending overseas wars was a campaign promise for a president who tries hard to keep his promises, ending the war in Afghanistan is a “nice to have” for most American voters, including Mr. Trump’s Republican base. If the Trump administration had continued the talks after the recent Taliban attack that killed an American soldier, it would have been construed as American weakness and over-eagerness for an agreement by the insurgents and our Afghan allies as well. We don’t need an agreement that badly, and neither does the Afghan government.
It is true that the Afghan government has lost ground to the Taliban since American combat operations ceased, but the situation has settled into a stalemate that neither side has been able to break, and that is not a good thing for the Taliban. That is particularly true since they have failed to take a major city. The recent failed offensive to take the city of Kanduz was a major defeat for the Taliban as the winter lull in fighting approaches.
Worse for the Taliban, the administration in Kabul is confident enough in its standing with the electorate to continue with planned elections. Disrupting the electoral process and delegitimizing a democratically elected government is a must for any insurgent movement. This is particularly important for the Taliban, which is a coalition of a number of disparate groups. The failure to show progress will hurt both recruiting and fund raising as the winter approaches. This is particularly true considering the fact that the Taliban are fighting two wars; the one against the government may be stalemated, but the Taliban is steadily losing ground to the Islamic State’s Afghan franchise, which is competing with the old school Taliban insurgency for recruits.
The Afghan government doesn’t need a truce or even a cease fire. It has problems with corruption, and the armed forces still need massive influxes of foreign aid and military advice, but it retains the support of the majority of Afghan citizens,
particularly those in heavily populated areas. These voters have seen life under the Taliban and have no desire to see a return to Islamist rule.
No one thinks that any negotiated agreement will end the war. The Taliban obviously hope that an American withdrawal will dishearten the government enough to give them a fighting edge and perhaps allow them time to deal with the Islamic State threat behind Taliban lines. However, a total American withdrawal would take away the primary argument for the Taliban’s existence which is to rid the nation of foreign “occupation.” Perhaps the Taliban can claim that the Islamic State fighters are a foreign presence, but the Kabul government will be able to make the same argument. There is a real danger that people in the Taliban-occupied areas of Afghanistan will start asking, what are these guys fighting about?”
Things brings us to the American position going forward. President Trump would obviously like to have the war end on his watch, but the only way Afghanistan can hurt him in 2020 is if we leave and the Kabul government collapses; that is not likely to happen. However, Mr. Trump’s best strategy is to facilitate a deal that will get a truce while ensuring some kind of counterterrorist presence that will ensure that the Islamic State cannot use Afghanistan as a base for antiWestern attacks.
As is the case with negotiations Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who served as a civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan. He lectures in Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.