BY JAMES TRAUB
Foreign Policy Magazine
MARCH 5, 2021
New details are trickling out about how the United States is preparing to withdraw its troops without leaving chaos behind.
One of the many problems with the perpetually reiterated cry to “end the forever wars” is that it only tells you what the United States should stop doing rather than what it should actually do to address the problems that caused the war in question in the first place. Exhibit A is Afghanistan, on which a growing chorus of voices has advised the Biden administration to withdraw all U.S. troops by May 1, the date envisioned in the agreement signed last February in Doha, Qatar, between the United States and the Taliban.
What about the fear that a Taliban-controlled government will make common cause with al Qaeda extremists, whom they reportedly continue to shelter? “It is hard to believe these reports,” writes Amitai Etzioni. What about the terrifying consequences to human rights, and above all women’s rights, of a Taliban-dominated government? “The past two decades have taught us … that fixing Afghan politics and society while keeping the Taliban out is beyond our considerable abilities,” notes William Ruger, an Afghanistan War veteran and vice president at the Charles Koch Institute. This is one subject that left and right can agree on.
The Doha agreement provided for talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government to work out the terms of a cease-fire and an ensuing transitional government. Those talks have remained stalled, leading to the fear—the terror, among many Afghans—that the United States would pull out its troops before any understanding had been reached. The “forever wars” crowd claims that a U.S. departure would force the regime in Kabul to get serious about negotiations. Afghan hawks, including the authors of the recent Afghanistan Study Group report, claim, with no more plausibility, that if the United States not only stays but increases its troop strength, it can help foster an “independent, democratic, and sovereign Afghan state” that can suppress the terrorist threat to the West.
I am happy to report that the Biden administration seems to have thought its way out of the simple-minded formula of stay-or-go. In the course of researching for this column, I heard a report that Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, had proposed to the country’s leaders a format for a joint transitional government with the Taliban to be worked out at a meeting of regional states along the lines of the Bonn conference that set up the Afghan government in 2001. A Dari-language newspaper, Hashte Subh, published on March 3 an extensive account of the Khalilzad proposal. That same day, Khalilzad himself posted a series of tweets describing a “productive three days of consultations” with government and civil society figures in Kabul. The U.S. State Department, however, refused to affirm the newspaper’s account, stating that while Khalilzad has been holding discussions with both sides, “we have no wish to be prescriptive.”
The Biden administration plan described in Hashte Subh proposes an explicit structure for a “transitional peace government”—shared in an apparently unspecified manner between the Taliban and the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani—that would in turn oversee the drafting of a new constitution and the holding of elections. The new government would establish a truth and reconciliation commission and a body to oversee the integration of Taliban fighters, as well as commissions on economic development, refugees, narcotics control, and the like. A “high council of Islamic jurisprudence,” with members appointed by both sides, would offer religious guidance on legislation. The actual details presumably would be hammered out in the envisioned meeting with regional states.
The report, if true, argues that it is possible to learn from one’s mistakes—but only after doing the wrong thing again and again. As early as 2003, Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations envoy who presided over Bonn, argued for a “Bonn II” that would include the Taliban, as the original meeting had not. The Bush administration largely dropped Afghanistan for Iraq, while President Barack Obama allowed his generals to convince him to hold off negotiating with the Taliban until the United States had gained the military upper hand—which, of course, it never did. Officials who called for a regional solution never got much traction.
One of those officials, Barnett Rubin, a leading scholar of the region and a former member of Richard Holbrooke’s Afghanistan-Pakistan team, returned to that argument in a recent piece for Foreign Affairs in which he argues for a drawdown on troops—but only within the framework of a “coordinated regional strategy that seeks to capitalize on areas of alignment between the United States and regional powers,” including India, Pakistan, Russia, China, and Iran. Each of these neighbors, Barnett asserts, has interests of its own, but all have an interest in a stable Afghanistan. Some of them, like Pakistan, can ensure that Afghanistan will never be peaceful if their own interests are ignored, as happened in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. (Rubin, my colleague at the Center on International Cooperation, has himself brought together figures from these countries in so-called Track II discussions.)
The first question is whether both the Taliban and the Ghani government would even agree to sit down with each other in a Bonn-like setting. The government in Kabul, petrified of a complete U.S. withdrawal, is unlikely to pose an insuperable obstacle. The Taliban, however, might conclude that they’re better off waiting out the Americans and then gaining military victory. Rubin, who has decades of experience with the Taliban, is moderately hopeful that the insurgents will come to the table. “What people don’t understand about the Taliban,” he told me, “is that they’re not just trying to win—they want to be recognized and respected.” Rubin pointed out that Taliban negotiators insisted on including in the February accord in Doha a clause stipulating that the “United States and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan are committed to continue positive relations, including economic cooperation for reconstruction.”
If all sides do, indeed, agree to meet, they will do so under the auspices of the United Nations. One of the reasons Bonn worked was because it was convened by the U.N., unlike the postwar reorganization of Iraq, wholly dominated by the United States. The U.N. can serve as an honest broker; Washington cannot. What’s more, the meeting would be convened in Turkey—a majority Islamic country but not a party to the conflict. This is further evidence of lessons learned.
Of course the idea that Afghanistan’s neighbors and the United States can somehow harmonize their voices and interests in order to press the combatants to lay down arms seems fanciful. Washington and Tehran will have trouble sitting at the same table, much less agreeing on something. But let us suppose that they do and a new governing regime, presumably ratified by a new loya jirga, somehow emerges from this conclave. What would this new Afghanistan look like? Would it be good not only for the Americans, who get to finally end a grinding 20-year war, but for Afghans as well? Would it be better than the likely alternative if the United States withdraws troops without such a deal?
Facing a May 1 deadline to withdraw U.S. troops, the new administration must walk a tightrope toward peace.
I began this article planning to write about the lessons of Vietnam. The U.S. abandonment of Vietnam in 1975 led to none of the dreadful consequences predicted by hawks, whether the loss of Asia to communism or the wreckage of American prestige. That’s a hopeful analogy for the get-out-of-Dodge crowd. But the U.S. withdrawal was a disaster for the Vietnamese people, millions of whom were relocated from cities to “new economic zones” in the highlands or subjected to so-called reeducation programs or who fled in rickety boats to escape totalitarianism.
The point is not that the United States should have continued to prop up a feckless and corrupt regime in order to keep the National Liberation Front out of power forever; it’s rather that an intervening force incurs a grave moral debt. “You break it, you own it,” as Colin Powell used to say. I am struck by how nonchalantly the hardheaded partisans of leaving Afghanistan to itself—or, rather, to the Taliban—wave off this debt.
I asked Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, about the consequences of a rapid U.S. withdrawal for the rights of Afghan girls to go to school or of women to hold jobs or of people of any kind to practice journalism without fear of being killed. Adams, who spent five years in Cambodia with the U.N., said the Afghans he knows talk not about Vietnam but about Cambodia—about the nightmare scenario of abandonment provoking mass violence. Yet abandonment, he points out, was a liberal cause. “Nixon’s opponents who were genuinely progressive” were the ones who insisted that the United States draw a sharp line under its presence in Southeast Asia. “The United States,” he added, “can’t revert to that kind of behavior and wash its hands of Afghanistan.”
An Afghan government even partly controlled by the Taliban won’t be good for human rights or women’s rights—no matter how much the Taliban crave international acceptance. The United States can’t stop that without staying in Afghanistan forever, though it can help pick up the pieces by accepting the hundreds of thousands of inevitable refugees, as it did in the case of Vietnam. In any case, a joint government may not be much worse than the current one, which has done little in the face of targeted assassinations of activists, journalists, teachers, and others. An Afghanistan at peace might finally be able to develop its economic potential or at least feed its people. That, in fact, is why the country’s neighbors matter so much: Afghanistan’s development requires a cooperative relationship with China, Iran, and Central Asia. And it will require as well—and for a long time to come—aid from the United States, the European Union, and Japan. We should be encouraged that the Biden administration seems unwilling to wash its hands of Afghanistan.
James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea