By Richard G. Olson
March 29, 2017
This year, America’s war in Afghanistan
will pass a grim milestone as it surpasses the Civil War in duration, as
measured against the final withdrawal of Union forces from the South. Only the
conflict in Vietnam lasted longer. United States troops have been in
Afghanistan since October 2001 as part of a force that peaked at nearly 140,000
troops (of which about 100,000 were American) and is estimated to have cost the
taxpayers at least $783 billion.
Despite this heavy expenditure, the United
States commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., recently called
for a modest troop increase to prevent a deteriorating stalemate. The fall of
Sangin in Helmand Province to the Taliban this month is a tactical loss that
may be reversed, but it certainly suggests the situation is getting worse. With
the Trump administration’s plan to increase the military budget while slashing
the diplomatic one, there is a risk that American policy toward Afghanistan
will be defined in purely military terms.
Absent from the current debate is a clear
statement of our objectives — and a way to end the Afghan war while preserving
the investment and the gains we have made, at the cost of some 2,350 American
lives. It has always been clear to senior military officers like Gen. David H.
Petraeus, who was the American commander in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011, as
well as to diplomats like me, that the war could 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
The challenges of bringing about such a
reconciliation are formidable, but the basic outline of a deal is tantalizingly
obvious. Despite more than 15 years of warfare, the United States has never had
a fundamental quarrel with the Taliban per se; it was the group’s hosting of Al
Qaeda that drove our intervention after the Sept. 11 attacks. For its part, the
Taliban has never expressed any desire to impose its medieval ideology outside
of Afghanistan, and certainly not in the United States.
Under President Ashraf Ghani and Chief
Executive Abdullah Abdullah, the Afghan government has supported reconciliation
efforts. And there is no question that ordinary Afghans overwhelmingly support
peace, even as most also opposes a return of the Taliban’s brutal regime of the
At its heart, the Afghan conflict is
between rural traditionalists and urban modernizers, and this has been the case
since Afghan Communists seized power in 1978. However, regional powers have
also played a predatory role.
Pakistan’s cynical support for the Taliban
is merely the most visible of the hedging strategies that various neighbors,
including the Iranians and the Russians, have adopted to ensure that they have
some armed Afghan faction beholden to their interests. A comprehensive
political settlement would remove the security dilemma that drives these
So What Is The Way Forward For An Afghan
The first step is clear, and has come close
to fruition over the years. The Taliban should be allowed to open an office,
most likely in Doha, Qatar, to conduct peace talks with the Afghan government.
This was very nearly accomplished in 2013, but the Taliban overreached by
raising its flag and putting up signs identifying the office as representing
the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” The American government and the Afghan
government, under President Hamid Karzai, rightly rejected these trappings of
an embassy, and the deal collapsed.
All potential partners, including the
government of Qatar, have learned the lessons of that debacle and have every
incentive to avoid repeating it. This is an area for quiet diplomacy, led by
the United States.
Once talks begin, our government will have
to define its position. Even after all these years of fighting, the United
States sometimes deludes itself into thinking it is not a party to the
conflict; the Taliban believes otherwise. In coordination with our Afghan
allies, the United States should be prepared to put on the table the conditions
under which we would consider pulling our forces out of Afghanistan. Any
withdrawal would have to be phased in response to the Taliban’s living up to
its commitments, including guarantees that Afghan territory will never be used
to enable attacks on America.
The more difficult aspect of the discussion
will be among the Afghans themselves as they address the central issues that
have divided them for decades. The American position should be to ensure there
is no backsliding from the progress Afghanistan has made on human rights,
including women’s rights, and constitutional government.
Since there have been no negotiations yet,
it is difficult to assess what the Taliban’s actual demands would be. Their
concern about the Afghan Constitution may be simply that they were not a party
to its drafting. Like other countries’ constitutions, Afghanistan’s can be
The United States must remain committed
throughout to strengthening the Afghan state, including support for the Afghan
Army, so that the Afghan government delegation has a strong negotiating
position. Any final settlement would have to include the terms under which the
Taliban enters the political system under the Constitution, specific
arrangements to ensure that Afghan territory would not be used to attack others
and regional commitments to end proxy warfare on Afghan territory.
I hold no brief for the Taliban — two of my
friends were murdered by the group. It is brutal and indiscriminate in its
violence, and its position on women’s rights has rightly been condemned by the
international community. But these are not good arguments for perpetuating
conflict in one of the world’s poorest countries. That would not only be a
disservice to the Afghan people, but would also probably be unsupportable among
the American people.
We have a president who believes in the art
of a deal. We should negotiate a hard bargain with the Taliban.
Richard G. Olson was the United States ambassador to Pakistan from 2012
to 2015 and the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2015