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Keeping a Bad Deal at All Costs: US Moral Failure in Afghanistan

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Keeping a Bad Deal at All Costs: US Moral Failure in Afghanistan

U.S. policy toward Afghanistan has been short-sighted and ill-conceived for decades.

Keeping a Bad Deal at All Costs: US Moral Failure in Afghanistan
Credit: Tech. Sgt. Oneika Banks

With the UN’s revelation that the Taliban haven’t broken ties with al-Qaeda, the United States’ dismal performance in the so-called peace talks is on full display. Throughout the negotiations, U.S. officials assured lawmakers and the American public that they would never compromise national security. The Taliban would have to end their entanglement with Osama bin Laden’s legacy organization to win the coveted U.S. troop withdrawal. This was the United States’ red line. Negotiators expressed confidence in the Taliban’s sincerity, even as observers balked at the suggestion that the hardline Islamist movement would sever links to al-Qaeda and suddenly transform into an anti-terror outfit. Spring 2020 has proven the skeptics right. 

More worrying than the faulty premises, unenforceable commitments, and vagaries on which the deal was built are the lengths to which the United States has gone to keep it intact. Nearly four months of bloodshed have passed since the signing in Doha. Barring a Trumpian twist, it’s clear that the United States will uphold the agreement at all costs — even as the Taliban violate most of its terms.

Much was forfeited in the negotiations: Leverage, as President Donald Trump repeatedly undermined his own negotiators by floating the prospect of a troop withdrawal, deal or no deal, and then abruptly called off the talks via Twitter in September; dignity, as policy incoherence, internal discord, and a tendency to abdicate authority and abandon allies played out on the world stage; the trust of Afghan partners, who watched anxiously from the sidelines as the United States pursued closed-door deliberations while threatening to quit the country; and the lives of thousands of Afghan civilians and security personnel, as well as several Americans, killed during a months-long barrage of violence as the Taliban ramped up attacks to gain bargaining advantage in the absence of a firm demand for a ceasefire.

That the Taliban remain connected to al-Qaeda is unsurprising. Senior figures in the insurgency, especially the powerful Haqqani family, share decades of history with bin Laden’s organization through battlefield camaraderie and intermarriage. The Taliban can be expected to preserve these linkages, albeit covertly. But it’s discouraging to witness the pattern of myth-making, equivocation, and denial that U.S. officials have adopted to forge and sustain the deal, all at the expense of Afghan lives and U.S. security.  

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s blustery speech at the Doha signing ceremony on February 28 typified the kind of spin that’s since been used to shore up the agreement. Pompeo espoused a peculiarly American narrative that has fueled so many foreign interventions — a strange cocktail of empire plus democracy, mingling the language of self-determination with that of paternalism. “We believe that the Afghan people are ready to chart their own course forward,” Pompeo announced. America had to acknowledge “the hard truth that a comprehensive, inclusive, durable peace could only be secured by the Afghan people themselves.” A little later, he addressed his audience directly: “And to the Afghan people… this is your moment.” 

This framing was pure artifice, designed to absolve the United States of all responsibility for the Afghan disaster that would likely follow a bad deal. At points in Pompeo’s speech, the United States sounded like a benevolent facilitator of Afghan peace, an impartial actor, rather than a deeply involved combatant and key patron of the Afghan state. Perversely, his rhetoric echoed that of national liberation movements — as if the United States had decided that rapid troop withdrawal was the moral response to the Afghan people’s aspirations. He didn’t mention the social fragmentation, regime collapse, and civil war that have resulted from similar redistributions of power. 

Most tellingly, Pompeo rehashed the old “graveyard of empires” myth, a phrase that he invoked without irony to justify the United States’ imminent pullout. The reference was both a sad testament to the colonial-era lens through which policymakers still view Afghanistan — as innately fractious, hostile, and ungovernable — and a jarring admission that the United States plays the part of empire, not ally. It gave the lie to years of talk about partnership, mutuality, and Afghan sovereignty. Indeed, one of the main reasons Washington refused to negotiate directly with the Taliban prior to 2018 was the former’s insistence that the Afghan government, as a sovereign entity, had sole authority to prosecute or end the war. Pompeo’s speech marked the formal end to that charade. 

Just how great a charade it had been became apparent after signing. It turned out that the United States had agreed — in terms vague enough to ensure clashing interpretations — to the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners from Afghan custody. The Afghan government was rightly enraged by this erosion of its legitimacy. Worse still, the Taliban made the hoped-for “reduction in violence” and commencement of intra-Afghan talks conditional on the success of the prisoner release. Pressure from both sides put Kabul in an impossible position. Squeezed by the United States and battered by the Taliban since early March, the government has been releasing prisoners, but doing so on its own timetable to preserve some semblance of control.

The “reduction in violence” originally referred to a week-long de facto ceasefire, a test of Taliban goodwill and organizational unity before finalizing the deal. It then became a quasi-condition for long-term success: The Taliban needed to “significantly” decrease attacks on government forces in preparation for intra-Afghan talks. Of course, such expectations are unenforceable. The text of the deal never specified what an acceptable level of violence would be, what constituted a violation, or what penalties this would incur. The clause became merely one more U.S. wish-list item that the Taliban had no intention of granting.

As the Taliban have continued killing dozens of Afghan security forces each week in the wake of the deal, statements from U.S. officials on the subject have sounded increasingly tepid. “There has not been a reduction in violence, if you will, from the Taliban side,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told the Brookings Institution on May 4. “On the other hand, they have not attacked us or attacked major metropolitan areas.” The message was clear: Reduction in violence was preferable, but in the end, nonessential. The Taliban were free to ignore certain terms of the agreement.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the lead U.S. negotiator and envoy for intra-Afghan peace, has made his own half-hearted pleas for restraint. Following a May 21 visit with Afghan leaders, he tweeted: “On peace, we agreed that violence is much too high and there is a need to move urgently to reduce it by all sides.” In other words, violence was much too high and should be reduced, but the Taliban would face no consequences for failing to reduce it. 

Meanwhile, the NATO mission to Afghanistan has quietly stopped sharing data on enemy-initiated attacks — “one of the last remaining metrics” for the state of the war in Afghanistan, according to a U.S. government watchdog — and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has discontinued its regular Air Power Summary, which tallies airstrikes in Afghanistan and the region. This obscuring of ground realities ensures that the United States can avoid uncomfortable questions about Taliban noncompliance and the killing of allies.

The Taliban’s transformation in official U.S. rhetoric has been remarkable. From a despised, blacklisted nemesis a few months ago, the group has now attained near-partner status. Terms of censure previously applied to the insurgents are now reserved exclusively for the Islamic State, also called Daesh, the other major extremist threat in Afghanistan. “Daesh is working against peace, is working against reduced level of violence, and they have been responsible… for some of the most dastardly attacks recently,” Khalilzad stated in early June, as reported by Tolo News. “We believe that the Talibs have been important, besides the Afghan security forces and ourselves, in the fight against Daesh.” 

The United States has extravagantly mismanaged the peace process. Not only has the Trump administration hamstrung Kabul as the latter prepares for intra-Afghan talks, but it has nothing to show for a year-and-a-half of bargaining except a safe exit. Allies have been pushed aside, lives have been discarded, and the alleged “red line” looks more and more like the guidelines that make up the rest of the agreement. The Taliban know that the United States is only serious about one thing: imminent withdrawal. Despite rumblings from top U.S. generals and others in the security establishment, Trump, true to form, will probably talk over expert objections, insist on maintaining the troop drawdown schedule, and congratulate himself for striking an excellent deal. 

It’s tempting to lay all the blame at the feet of Trump, and he certainly deserves a large share. But it’s worth remembering that U.S. policy toward Afghanistan has been short-sighted and ill-conceived for decades. The establishment has learned shockingly little about Afghan society and politics in the last 18 years, not to mention the last 40. Journalists and advisers have drawn grim comparisons between the current scenario and the early 1990s, when Afghanistan’s Soviet puppet regime folded, plunging the country into chaos and creating the very environment in which al-Qaeda could thrive. But these lessons generally go unheeded, especially when it’s a U.S. election year and token achievements are within reach. 

The Afghan government and the Taliban are on track to fulfill the prisoner exchange quotas in the coming weeks, laying the groundwork for a ceasefire and direct talks. The road ahead will be difficult as delegates seek to reconcile myriad competing interests — those of a schismatic government coalition, an ideologically extreme insurgency, clerics, foreign states, civil society organizations, and strongmen. Those of us with thick personal ties to Afghanistan hope and pray that the Afghan government will find a just, peaceful way forward through this morass. If they do, it will be in spite of U.S. efforts, not because of them.

 Aidan Mark Lewis is a writer and international consultant. Raised in Afghanistan and India, he studied regional security issues at King’s College London.