Will there be a peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban? Will such a deal include a rapid U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan or a more phased drawdown? And when exactly can we expect this deal to be signed?
As U.S. special representative Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban negotiators reportedly haggle over the final details of what would finally be the beginning of the end of America’s 18-year story in Afghanistan, we are all left to speculate about these questions. Proponents of keeping a U.S. force presence on the ground regardless of an accord continue to churn out columns and statements about why leaving would be disastrous for America’s national security. Others, including senior officials in the Afghan government, either protest about how the negotiations are being conducted or assume that any accord reached will amount to a pitiful surrender. The U.S. military has been operating in Afghanistan for so long that you can forgive the American people if they believed that bailing out Kabul whenever it gets into trouble is an endless U.S. responsibility.
What very few of these people do, however, is put forth a persuasive argument as to why the cost in more American blood and money is worth the benefit of deploying another generation of American service members into a war zone.
It’s time for some truth telling: As much as we would like an ideal outcome, it’s simply not in the cards. Our excessive self-confidence (one could say hubris) in remaking societies from the ground up has gotten the better of us for far too long, leading to countless mistakes, astronomically poor spending decisions, and an incredible imbalance between the ends we hoped to meet and the means we used to achieve them. It’s time for some realism instead.
While the United States is still the most powerful country on the planet, it has little leverage left in Afghanistan. As has been demonstrated repeatedly over the years, the Taliban will not be pounded from the air into submission — nor will members of the movement become willing converts to democracy anytime soon. All 20 terrorist organizations that now operate on Afghan soil won’t be hammered into extinction. The Afghan government will remain trapped by corruption, zero-sum politics, incompetence and the occasional criminality.
Here is another uncomfortable fact: Assuming a deal is signed, Afghanistan is likely to remain a country at war. The chances of any peace agreement slamming the door shut to the last four decades of warfare is about as high as buying a million-dollar lottery ticket. Those foot soldiers and mid-level field commanders in the Taliban who oppose compromise in any form could switch their allegiance to irreconcilable groups like al-Qaida or the Islamic State, both of which will welcome them with open arms. Violence on the ground will undoubtedly continue; neighboring countries like Pakistan, Iran, India and Russia will hedge their bets and heap support to their favorite proxies, perhaps sparking a whole new civil conflict. Individuals who have profited handsomely from the war will also have an incentive to spoil the peace.
But as the saying goes, we are where we are. This is the situation the United States finds itself in today. We can either make the best of a bad situation and negotiate our way out of this endless conflict on acceptable terms, the most important being the retention of some regional military and intelligence platforms in order to manage the terrorism problem. Or it could scratch the talks altogether, push for some dystopian fantasy agreement that will never come, or naively embrace the logic that a few more years of military pressure on the Taliban will finally push it to give up unconditionally like the Germans in 1945.
Afghanistan has been nicknamed the “endless war” for a reason — it goes on, like a clock in the night, without a hitch. If Ambassador Khalilzad can do the seemingly impossible by delivering a deal that ends America’s participation in it while ensuring the U.S. never loses its eyes and ears on the country, it’s a deal many Americans will accept and maybe even celebrate.
Nobody said negotiating peace with your enemy would be easy. But compared to a status quo that amounts to doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, negotiating is the best option we have.
Maj. Gen. (ret.) Richard S. “Beef” Haddad was the former vice commander, Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command, Robins Air Force Base, Ga., a career special forces pilot, and is now a fellow at the American College of National Security Leaders. He lives in Tampa.