U.S. Likely To Settle for Afghan Withdrawal Deal It Could Have Got 15 Years Ago

Early progress in U.S.-Taliban peace talks are a reminder of how little we're fighting for in Afghanistan.


Omar Sobhani/REUTERS/Newscom

The U.S. and the Taliban have agreed to a draft framework for a peace agreement that could pave the pay for a U.S. military withdrawal from the country, said the chief American envoy to the country.

According to a New York Times report from Monday, Zalmay Khalilzad—a U.S. special representative to Afghanistan—said that Taliban officials agreed to not host international terrorist organizations in the country. That, coupled with larger concessions, could lead to a full American military withdrawal.

"The Taliban have committed, to our satisfaction, to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals," Khalilzad told the Times. "We felt enough confidence that we said we need to get this fleshed out, and details need to be worked out."

U.S. officials have been in direct talks with Taliban officials since at least July 2018, repeating these interactions in October and December. The tentative framework coming out of this latest January meeting represents "the biggest tangible step toward ending a two-decade war," the Times reports.

It also a deal the U.S. could have gotten long ago and with much less bloodshed, says Cato foreign policy scholar John Glaser.

"The broad outlines of the peace deal that we are now negotiating could have been pursued back in 2001," Glaser tells Reason. "We really could have gotten out of Afghanistan a decade and a half ago if we didn't harbor ridiculous ambitions of we might accomplish in Afghanistan."

Those ambitions included an attempt to eliminate the Taliban as a political force in Afghanistan and establish a stable, democratic government in its place, Glaser says.

Despite 17 years of direct U.S. military involvement in the country—which has cost $900 billion and the lives of some 2,400 U.S. military personnel—these goals have proven elusive.

A late October report from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found that the U.S.-backed Afghan government controlled just 56 percent of the country's administrative districts—down from 72 percent in 2015—and that while violent incidents as a whole were down, civilian deaths were increasing. It's estimated that over 31,000 Afghan civilians have been killed between 2001 and 2016.

Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani said recently that 45,000 Afghan troops had been killed since he assumed office in 2014, a large increase over the 28,000 that were previously thought to have died during that time.

President Donald Trump was highly critical of the U.S.'s war in Afghanistan while on the campaign trail, arguing that we had no business being in the country anymore. Shortly after assuming office, however, he was convinced to stay, and even increased the number of U.S. troops in the country by some 4,000.

In late December Trump appeared to reverse himself again, with officials saying he would cut the number of U.S. forces in the country in half, from 14,000 to 7,000.

The latest news about very preliminary steps suggests the administration is finally serious about withdrawal. Given how early it is in the process however, there are still plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong.

The Taliban has so far refused to recognize the legitimacy of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, a major sticking point. The corrupt and enfeebled Kabul regime is also desperate for at least some U.S. forces to remain. Few presidents want to have a lost war on their record.

Nevertheless, that these talks are making progress and that the U.S. government appears willing to accept a complete withdrawal from the country—as opposed to leaving a small ground force behind—is encouraging, says Glaser.

He cautions, however, that policymakers and the public more broadly need to accept that Afghanistan, and whoever ends up controlling it, poses almost no threat to U.S. security.

Its status as an impoverished, far away country means it could never pose a conventional threat to U.S. security, and that its geographic isolation make it operationally useless as a place to hatch terrorist plots against the west.

"We have to make it clear to ourselves," Glaser says, "that a ground presence in Afghanistan doesn't protect us from terrorism."