President Trump made the correct decision in canceling the peace talks with the Taliban of Afghanistan. These were never really peace talks. They were surrender talks. The primitive and barbarous Taliban represented them as such and to underline the point, engaged in a number of bombing atrocities in a cluster to correspond with their ill-considered invitation to Camp David to discuss peace with the Afghan government.
The American manager of these discussions—the well-respected former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Afghanistan, and Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad—tentatively arranged for a complete American withdrawal from Afghanistan if the Taliban would promise not to tolerate any part of Afghanistan becoming a staging or training center for any external terrorist organization. Thousands of Taliban prisoners were to be released, and the arrangement was to be capped by an extended cease-fire, which the Taliban broke in a particular act of contemptuous bad faith just as the talks were to open at Camp David. The Afghan government was to join these talks for the first time. The Taliban has long regarded the Kabul government with extreme derision as puppets and stooges of the Americans.
Khalilzad and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seem to have been acting on President Trump’s desire to fulfill his campaign intention to wind down the effort in Afghanistan. The president’s fidelity to his pre-election promises is admirable and part of his apparently unshakable hold on the loyalty of almost all his original supporters. But if that commitment becomes a fetishistic objective in itself and does not respond to changed circumstances, it can be self-defeating inflexible dogma.
I would note the departure this week of National Security Advisor John Bolton, though inelegantly executed, is not a major problem. Ronald Reagan had six national security advisors and was one of the most successful foreign policy presidents in history.
Afghanistan Isn’t Worth It
The Taliban have never treated agreements with any seriousness; making and then brutally violating them is part of their modus operandi. Apart from being militant Islamists, they seem not to have any commitment to any behavioral norms; they are completely uncivilized merchants of terrorist violence and primitive dictatorship, opposed to scholarship, liberality, or any emancipation of women above the status of slave labor, chattels of their men, and involuntary breeding stock.
The Taliban have almost no general public appeal and enjoy the support of less than 10 percent of the Afghan population. But Afghanistan is a country with very weak internal structures apart from tribal arrangements. Its vulnerability is that it is a rugged, landlocked country with practically no resources beyond basic agriculture and has never been worth the effort that would be needed for a stronger country to impose control over it.
Above all, the United States has to stay away from the Vietnam psychosis of engaging the country’s strategic credibility in a cause it won’t see through to a satisfactory end.
In the late 19th century, Great Britain, which ruled the British Indian Empire consisting of the present states of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Nepal, and Bhutan, eyed Afghanistan but thought better of it. Nearly a century later, the Soviet Union occupied the country, as it claimed and thought, with about 100,000 soldiers. (The current population is about 35 million.) It is, in conventional terms, a hopeless country.
There is no possible adequate reward for the effort that would be required to make anything out of Afghanistan. Its sole attraction is the negative desire after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington of September 2001, to prevent the place from becoming again a launch point for terrible acts of mass terror. It is this unrewarding perspective that has fueled President Trump’s understandable desire to leave Afghanistan and let others closer to the scene deal with its intractable problems.
On the face of it, there is no obvious reason for Americans to be concerned about a primitive and brutal government of Afghanistan. But the United States led an international effort supported by the United Nations and NATO to overthrow the government of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks and tear up the al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations sheltering in that country.
Why the Democracy Project Failed
For a brief time, Afghanistan played a cameo role in the George W. Bush-Colin Powell-Condoleezza Rice championship of democracy as the antidote for war. What many warned at the time was that a democratic consultation could easily produce an anti-democratic government, and an installed democratic government in a country with none of the traditions or conditions conducive to a functioning democracy is likely to fail.
In general, democracy takes hold where the society is well organized and increasingly prosperous, as in Japan, South Korea, Poland, Spain, and up to a point, Mexico. Desperately poor and disorganized countries that don’t attract the talent or justify the effort, like Afghanistan, are unremitting.
The United States and its allies had a full justification to invade Afghanistan, and they did their best to modernize and assist the country, and they have had some success: there was no Afghan army when they started and it has 270,000 members now. The United States and its allies cannot justify, morally or strategically, just walking out. In five years the United States and allied force levels in Afghanistan have declined from 150,000 to about 19,000 and the casualty levels have declined correspondingly.
Large parts of Afghanistan are controlled or influenced by different Taliban groups (the word means “students” and in practice, they are Islamist terrorist organizations with only the most elemental and brutal notions of administration). Different neighboring countries to Afghanistan have sponsored Taliban factions around the country. Pakistan notoriously has supported the Haqqani Taliban, but other factions are sponsored by India, Iran, and Uzbekistan. Most of them have an interest in assuring that none of the others get control of the whole country.
Any genuine settlement likely would have to await the resolution of relations with Iran, and here the Trump Administration undoubtedly is on the right course: the application of massive economic pressure until the regime stops its external terrorist sponsorships. Iran can cease to be a destructive force in Afghanistan contemporaneously with ceasing its promotion of war and strife in Lebanon, Gaza, and Yemen. Implicit in this policy is the threat of military intervention to prevent Iran from acquiring deliverable nuclear warheads; if necessary, that threat should be shown not to be an empty one.
On the ground in Afghanistan, the United States should do what it can to encourage the sponsoring powers of the Taliban factions to provide the restraining and coordinating pressures they can to allow the Afghan government to develop and to assure that civil society, such as it is, does not recede into stagnation in ancient Islamist recourse to violent systematic misogyny and feudalism.
The United States has considerable influence on the sponsoring powers, and there are signs that the scandalous indulgence of Pakistan’s hypocrisy over Afghanistan has ended. America’s allies, who partially plunged into Afghanistan after 9/11 to try to “collegialize” American responses after those terrorist outrages, should be carrying more than 25 percent of this burden. This is part of this administration’s commendable and somewhat successful attempt to revitalize the Western alliance from the decrepit state of chronic free-riding at U.S. expense to which previous administrations had allowed it to descend.
Avoid the Mistakes of the Past
Above all, the United States has to stay away from the Vietnam psychosis of embarking on a mission it is not prepared to make a realistic effort to achieve and engaging the country’s strategic credibility in a cause it won’t see through to a satisfactory end.
In Vietnam, the problem was compounded by asking a large conscript army to risk their lives for an object short of victory not clearly in the national interest. When domestic discord became too strenuous, It became an effort to leave with a chance of avoiding a Communist takeover and might have succeeded but for Watergate.
Afghanistan is a much smaller problem for America but again there are signs of trying to leave without bolting anything down. The Taliban were already crowing that they had driven out the Russians and now the Americans. President Trump is right to shift goals from complete evacuation to redistributed burden-sharing in order to reduce violence to tolerable levels and pacify much of the country. Properly explained, the country would support that policy. The Taliban must not win, but ultimately the Afghans must stop them.