Don’t leave the Afghan peace talks for dead

A crowded market in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 22. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)
A crowded market in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 22. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump’s decision this month to call off peace talks with the Taliban should not obscure the fundamental fact that a political settlement of the Afghanistan conflict remains the best way to protect U.S. national security interests and prevent terrorist attacks from originating in the region.

The U.S.-Taliban talks conducted on the U.S. side by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, made some progress. Although the draft deal has not been made public, it reportedly established conditions under which the United States would withdraw some troops in return for commitments by the Taliban to take steps against international terrorists and to begin negotiations with the Afghan government and other representatives of Afghan society. If so, it is a reasonable starting point in the search for peace.

The United States has three options to move beyond the current pause in negotiations. The first option is a unilateral U.S. troop withdrawal. Leaving without a viable political settlement would likely result in an even more violent civil war, an even weaker Afghan government, an increase in the number of terrorist havens, a substantial refugee exodus, as well as a rise in both migration and the number of terrorist threats to the United States and its friends and allies in the region. An abrupt, no-deal troop withdrawal would also unnecessarily give the Taliban its most prized demand while the United States would get worse than nothing in return.

A second option is to maintain the status quo indefinitely with either the same amount or slightly fewer U.S. troops. This might protect cities and major trade routes, but it does little to arrest the deteriorating military stalemate and is very unlikely to lead to the defeat of the Taliban. Remaining with several thousand U.S. troops essentially defers a final resolution while continuing to sacrifice American blood and treasure with little public support. This is to say nothing of the costs to Afghans, who are dying at a rate currently unmatched by any other conflict in the world.

The third option — returning to the negotiating table — is the best way to achieve the U.S. goal of eliminating the terrorist threat from Afghanistan because it can lead to an inclusive and sustainable peace. Intra-Afghan negotiations backed by U.S. leverage are also the best way to reduce violence levels in Afghanistan and to preserve the gains in rights, freedoms and societal progress that have been made since 2001 — particularly for the next generation and for women.

If talks resume, the United States could benefit from three important apparent achievements of the U.S.-Taliban talks. First, the Taliban agreed in principle to participate in negotiations with their fellow Afghans — including the Afghan government, opposition leaders, women and other members of civil society — about the future governance of the country. The parties, at this point, might be far apart in their negotiating positions. But a peace negotiation with inclusive Afghan representation is the best way to convince the Taliban that its old vision for the country is no longer acceptable to most Afghans.

Second, the negotiations highlighted how fundamental a U.S. troop withdrawal is to the Taliban while demonstrating to the Taliban that the United States is indeed willing to withdraw troops if it is within the framework of an overall negotiated political settlement.

Third, Khalilzad appears to have made progress in aligning the international community (China, Russia, Pakistan, India and the European Union) behind a strategy to end the Afghan war through a political settlement. Sustaining this fragile international consensus and preventing a reversion to neighbors’ support for competing armed proxies within Afghanistan is essential for a sustainable settlement that protects U.S. interests.

A return to the peace process should build on this foundation and make three important adjustments.

The first, and most important, is to ensure that conditionality is explicit in any deal with the Taliban. In other words, while we might agree to a notional timetable, all sides must clearly understand that the actual departure of our troops will occur only in response to an inclusive intra-Afghan peace. The United States must, therefore, show patience and resist any urge to sacrifice our leverage through self-imposed deadlines.

Second, a renewed negotiating process must immediately bring in our Afghan partners. It was reasonable to speak with the Taliban bilaterally as a starting point, but the process can only go further with direct participation by the Afghan government and other Afghans. Whoever emerges from Afghanistan’s presidential election on Saturday must become our primary partner in pursuing peace.

Finally, a nationwide cease-fire must become the top demand. It might be impossible to secure one as a precondition to negotiations, as some critics have called for, but we must insist on a comprehensive national cease-fire as an immediate and necessary outcome — and a substantial reduction of violence in the interim.

Peace negotiations leading to an inclusive political settlement are the only way that the United States can achieve its core objective of preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a haven for international terrorists, honor the service and sacrifice of our troops, and help bring an end to four decades of war and suffering in Afghanistan. That would be a fitting American legacy, and it is still within reach.

Don’t leave the Afghan peace talks for dead