No, we couldn’t win in Afghanistan. But we shouldn’t leave without a peace deal.

Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, speaks to troops during a visit to Forward Operating Base Fenty in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on Sept. 9. (Phil Stewart/Reuters)
Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, speaks to troops during a visit to Forward Operating Base Fenty in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on Sept. 9. (Phil Stewart/Reuters)

The Washington Post’s revelatory publication last week of The Afghanistan Papers — a trove of notes and transcripts — bares the discord between U.S. officials’ public characterizations, over years and years, of progress in the war and their private doubts and disillusionment. The raw material and accompanying analysis paint a picture of a nearly two-decade-long military intervention that has failed to achieve many, if not most, of its goals, and of government officials who did not level with the American people about that failure.

The Post laid bare that winning was never clearly defined and that officials routinely, falsely told the public that they were making gains under systemic pressure to tout positive results. But the takeaway shouldn’t be that U.S. troops should now pack up and go home. It’s a tempting lesson because, after all, if the United States isn’t winning the war and can’t durably fix Afghanistan’s ills, why should Americans still be there? Making a quick departure would be an understandable impulse, but it’s one that would squander a chance to get something right. If the United States pulls out now, before trying to negotiate a political settlement — a peace deal, essentially, between the Taliban and the government in Kabul — the outcome in Afghanistan will be even worse, adding violent collapse to the intervention’s failures.

For those who didn’t experience firsthand or follow closely the news about Afghanistan over the years, it must be alarming to learn now about the frustration and skepticism of U.S. policymakers, even as they offered assurances to the public that their mission was on track. Ambition did not match reality. As the goals expanded to encompass building a modern military, establishing democratic institutions, ensuring women’s rights, rooting out corruption and more, the facts that Afghanistan was a poor, landlocked, and weakly institutionalized country with patronage-based politics and interfering neighbors blunted progress at every turn. At the same time, the U.S. military’s aversion to accepting defeat and civilian leaders’ aversion to admitting error led to strategy changes that often amounted to little more than adjusting the dials of types and degree of effort rather than fundamentally reexamining what the United States was trying to achieve and why.

Although there are important ways in which life has improved for many Afghans, particularly in urban areas, in terms of access to education, health care and independent media, their government remains dependent on foreign donors for more than 75 percent of its spending, fraud and mismanagement mar elections, and corruptionis still endemic. And, of course, fighting rages on. These unsatisfactory results illuminate mistakes that should not be repeated, but they do not signify that all is lost.

The main reason not to sprint to the exits is that there is a genuine opportunity — albeit difficult to seize — for the United States to shepherd a negotiated political settlement. As U.S. military leaders have finally acknowledged, only such a settlement can bring the war to a close: In August, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “The Afghans need support to deal with the level of violence today,” adding, “If an agreement happens, that could change.” But a settlement can’t happen without the United States playing a central role in negotiations, and playing that role requires the leverage that a military presence in Afghanistan, and the financial aid that comes with U.S. boots on the ground, provides.

Several factors explain this. First, it is within American hands to give what the Taliban most wants from a negotiation: the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces from Afghan soil. For the Taliban, as well as for many other Afghans, the presence of foreign troops is simply repugnant. Fighting to expel them is the rallying cry of the insurgency.

Second, the elected Afghan government will not enter into real dealmaking with the Taliban without U.S. pressure — perhaps even threats of abrupt departure, made privately — as well as reassurance of material support for an eventual settlement. Doubtless, the current government wants a more peaceful Afghanistan, but it has routinely insisted on terms for a peace process that it does not have the wherewithal to attain, such as a cease-fire as a precondition and unilateral control over the format, agenda, time and place of talks. Some in the Kabul government have dangerously dangled the notion that Afghanistan would be better off with a U.S. departure and no peace deal than compromising with the Taliban. Kabul’s propaganda machine has become nearly as energized as the Taliban’s in claiming a path to victory. Afghanistan’s national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib recently asserted, for instance, that “we can defeat the Taliban militarily.”

Third, so long as the United States remains the essential power in Afghanistan, it will be in a position to push for cohesion among what will otherwise be a fractious anti-Taliban side of the negotiating table. The anti-Taliban delegation in any plausible format for talks will not be an automatically unified team but, instead, will be composed of the elected government as well as unelected Afghan power brokers. This will be a collection of leaders whom the United States has partnered with, befriended and in some instances — as The Post’s reporting shows — paid over the years. Many are political competitors with varied ideological, practical and personal interests. It’s an unfortunate reality that they will not readily achieve the degree of consensus needed to negotiate effectively without firm U.S. pressure.

Fourth, the U.S. military still maintains the balance of power in the country, even at its greatly reduced manpower level of about 13,000, down from a peak of about 100,000 troops, and even with Afghan government forces doing the bulk of the day-to-day fighting against the Taliban. The United States provides crucial air support for government forces, pays most of the costs of those forces, and has come to the rescue each time the Taliban has temporarily taken or threatened to take urban centers. The U.S. military can sustain a rough stalemate that still costs American and Afghan lives, or it can withdraw its presence and support, most likely leaving even bloodier chaos in its wake.

The question, then, is how much time is needed to give peacemaking a chance when opinions have soured, even before The Afghanistan Papers: In July, Pew Research Center reported that 58 percent of veterans and 59 percent of the public overall said the war was not worth fighting; in September, Gallup reported that 43 percent of Americans said the war was a mistake; and in October, President Trump emphasized, “I got elected on bringing our soldiers back home.”

There’s no tidy answer. If the United States signals a willingness to stay, it risks creating perverse incentives for the government side (which isn’t eager to see the Americans go) to undercut negotiations.

Throughout 2019, U.S. diplomats, led by special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, have been pursuing a deal. It’s the first time that the United States has truly prioritized negotiations since first adopting a policy of probing whether a deal might be had, but then allowed the policy to be beset by interagency squabbling and stalled by Afghan government hesitation. The United States’ commitment to sticking with the hard work of negotiating appears brittle, however. The process of reaching a preliminary agreement between the United States and the Taliban, which would have opened the door to even more important intra-Afghan negotiations, had been on the verge of conclusion when Trump disrupted it with a tweet and a seemingly offhand cancellation of talks in early September. Only in recent days have talks resumed. Moreover, the White House has done virtually nothing to sell the idea of a deal politically and publicly.

Washington has come late to focusing on what it should have been doing many years ago: reaching a settlement that ends the war while diminishing the international terrorist threat from Afghanistan.

There is a time for the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to end. How it ends matters, however, not just when — partly so that the United States can protect its core interests by leaving a semblance of stability behind, but mostly so that the Afghan people have a chance for more peaceful lives.

Headshot of Laurel Miller
Laurel Miller is director of International Crisis Group’s Asia program. She served as the Department of State’s deputy special representative and then as acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2013-2017
No, we couldn’t win in Afghanistan. But we shouldn’t leave without a peace deal.