Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has one of the most difficult jobs in the U.S. government: convincing a highly intransigent and violent insurgency to make peace with an Afghan government it despises and dismisses as a foreign puppet. It’s the diplomatic equivalent of pounding a square peg into a round hole.
Yet as frustrating and cumbersome as the diplomatic process has been to date, all of the other options available to the United States in Afghanistan are even worse. The only other alternatives are continuing the war in an endless and inescapable loop or unconditionally extricating all U.S. troops from the country, thereby leaving the Afghan government in Kabul vulnerable to collapse.
From the moment President Donald Trump authorized direct talks with the Taliban more than eight months ago, the effort has been criticized by many pundits, analysts, and ex-government officials as a sign of weakness, desperation and naïveté. The Taliban, we are told, has no intention of signing a peace deal — and that if the movement did miraculously sign on the dotted line, it has no interest in upholding its commitments. The talks have been blasted as an inappropriate concession to brutal Islamic zealots who once ruled Afghanistan with an iron fist, stoning women, persecuting minorities and sheltering Osama Bin Laden from justice. Others have labeled Khalilzad’s diplomacy as a unilateral surrender to the enemy, akin to the U.S. experience at the Paris peace talks during the closing months of the Vietnam War.
Ask these very same critics want they would recommend instead, however, and you will get a recitation of the status-quo ante that has dominated U.S. policy for nearly 18 years. Presumably, all the United States needs to do is grind it out and use the time to pummel the Taliban on the battlefield. With enough bombs dropped on their heads, so the theory goes, the Taliban will eventually reach the point where it sues for peace in a far weaker position.
It’s an appealing strategy that may indeed work in a conventional conflict between traditional armies. But in a country like Afghanistan, more war does not necessarily produce a better peace. The Taliban has proven itself to be a resilient adversary, one whose ideology resists any notion of surrender to a foreign power. Suspending the current U.S.-Taliban discussions would in effect mean gambling on a strategy of attrition that will only lengthen a war a majority of Americans and veterans no longer view as worth the fight and investment.
Nobody likes sitting down with people who have tried to kill you. Too many of our brave men and women in the U.S. Armed Forces have paid the ultimate sacrifice — 2,430 to be exact and two of whom were killed just this week. Tens of thousands of additional service members have suffered grievous injuries. The Afghan national security forces have sustained even more casualties, not to mention the tens of thousands of civilians who have died just walking in the marketplace. Given these circumstances, diplomacy is a painful endeavor.
For the United States, however, diplomacy is also the only way out of an otherwise endless conflict. War without end is not what the American people want, nor is it what the U.S. military signed up for.
We will have to wait and see what kind of agreement with the Taliban Ambassador Khalilzad comes back with — assuming the talks go that far. At that point, the foreign policy community and the American people will have the opportunity to judge the agreement on its merits. Any deal must include a Taliban break from Al-Qaeda and an ironclad commitment by the group to assist in preventing transnational terrorists from using Afghan territory to threaten the United States, its allies, and Afghanistan’s neighbors. Because it would be reckless to simply take the Taliban’s word on implementation, there will need to be an ironclad international monitoring regime to verify whether the movement is indeed abiding by the letter and spirit of the deal.
But until such a deal is presented, we would all be wise to let the diplomatic process work its will. This is ultimately the best way to meet our counterterrorism objectives while preventing yet another generation of U.S. combat troops from deploying to Afghanistan.