As we head closer to the 2020 presidential election, it is critical to ask how this war is going. Are we winning or losing? Is enduring peace in Afghanistan even possible?
On Saturday, American peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar signed an agreement in Doha, Qatar, that may result in an American military withdrawal from war-torn Afghanistan. This is, hopefully, good news. American troops have been fighting in Afghanistan for nearly as long as direct U.S. involvement in World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined. It is stunning to think that the United States is now sending Marines and GI's to Afghanistan who were not born on Sept. 11, 2001.
The toll thus far has been enormous. Over 3,500 U.S. and NATO troops have been killed since the war’s onset in October 2001, and tens of thousands have been wounded. Afghans have also suffered grievously from a war that began for them with the Soviet invasion in 1979. Over 100,000 have been killed and millions more displaced. As a result, Afghanistan now has one of the largest refugee populations on the planet. The financial cost to the American taxpayer is also staggering. It has been estimated at over $2 trillion, and this does not include care for veterans with long-term medical needs or disabilities. The war that American policymakers once called the “good war” or the “necessary war” became the endless war.
As we head closer to the 2020 presidential election, it is critical to ask how this war is going. Are we winning or losing? Is enduring peace in Afghanistan even possible? President Donald Trump made only a brief reference to the war in his State of the Union. He asserted that “tremendous progress” had been made, and that the “warfighters that we have — the best in the world — and they either want to fight to win or not fight at all.”
“Winning,” at least in a classical military sense, however, has been elusive. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) issues a quarterly report that is the most authoritative public document on the conduct of the war. The January 2020 SIGAR report shows that 2019 was one of the deadliest years in the war’s history. The endless war is going poorly for Washington and for Kabul. The Taliban escalated their attacks in December, and the United States has increased its reliance on airpower and bombing. Afghan Security Forces are at 80 percent strength and increasingly dependent on direct American assistance for ground operations. Over 400,000 Afghans fled their homes in 2019 and 11.3 million now face food shortages. The territory controlled by the Afghan government is shrinking.
In his State of the Union, Trump alluded to the Doha negotiations and reported that his administration was “working to finally end America’s longest war and bring our troops back home.” But the end of the American war in Afghanistan may not result in peace. Is the Trump administration simply seeking a way to extricate the United States from Afghanistan as the president begins his re-election efforts in earnest? Or is this a real attempt to achieve a lasting peace and stability? Even a signed agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban is not an end to the overall conflict, but it does begin a process that may end the war.
Formal negotiations between the United States and the Taliban began in February 2019. Agreeing to bilateral discussion with the Taliban was a major concession, as the U.S. had long insisted that any talks had to include the Afghan government. And on Saturday, in a Qatar hotel, the two opposing parties signed a deal that will could be the beginning of the end for U.S. involvement in the country.
The accord includes a schedule for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from the country. In return, the Taliban have pledged to not associate with al Qaeda, ISIS or other militant groups and not allow them to use Afghan territory to plan, organize and launch attacks against the U.S. or its allies. Many experts, however, are skeptical of the Taliban’s sincerity.
The ability of the United States to maintain some forces in Afghanistan was also a major sticking point throughout the talks. Washington argued that a small number of American troops were required to counter future terrorist threats. The Taliban, however, insisted that all foreign forces had to depart. The agreement does call for American troops to be reduced from 12,000 to around 8,600 almost immediately. A complete U.S. withdrawal will be based on full Taliban compliance with the agreement but could occur within 14 months.
The Taliban have further agreed to begin direct negotiations with the government in Kabul in order to craft a political roadmap for the country’s future. Obviously, this is critical if a long-term settlement is to be achieved, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has been concerned by the fact that his government was not directly involved in the negotiations in Qatar.
Still the overall political settlement that must now be negotiated between the Taliban and the Afghan government remains problematic. First, the U.S.-Taliban deal envisioned the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners by the Kabul government prior to intra-Afghan talks that are scheduled to begin March 10 in Oslo, Norway. The Taliban also agreed to release up to 1,000 government soldiers that they hold as prisoners. But in the immediate aftermath of the signing ceremony, Ghani announced that this was not possible, a major roadblock.
Second, Ghani has argued that Afghanistan must continue to be a “democracy” and show respect for women rights. But many experts believe that the Taliban still intends to create an emirate guided by religious leaders, and has also shown no interest in providing women any rights in the areas under their control.
Finally, Afghanistan is now in political deadlock. The long-awaited results of the September presidential elections were only recently announced. And while Ghani was declared the winner, his primary opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, has threatened to form his own government. As a result, the United States quietly convinced Ghani to postpone his inauguration ceremony until after the agreement was signed.
The Trump administration and its able negotiator, Ambassador Khalilzad, deserve credit for getting this far. Clearly, an end to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan would be a major foreign policy triumph for the president. But both military and political experts have long argued that a successful American strategy in Afghanistan requires the careful synergy of military, political, diplomatic and economic power. Consequently, it is unclear for many reasons if the president is willing to commit the U.S. to the future efforts required if long-term peace and stability is to be achieved.
For one thing, the United States does not currently have an ambassador in Kabul to deal with an extremely complex diplomatic situation. John Bass, the ambassador since 2017, departed in early Januaryand no successor has been named. Second, Trump has shown little to no interest in multilateral diplomatic efforts. His proposed 2020 budget calls for a 23 percent cut in the international affairs budget, and an enduring political settlement in Afghanistan cannot be achieved absent negotiations with Pakistan and other regional actors such as India and China.
Finally, Afghanistan will require significant economic assistance for many years. The World Bank has estimated that at least $4.6 billion — and perhaps as much as $8.2 billion — of donor funding will be needed per year through 2024. Even in a best-case scenario, nearly half of all public expenditures would need to be financed by donors, the World Bank reports.
There is little doubt that the American people are tired of the war in Afghanistan, and the majority are likely hopeful that this agreement will be successful. But a plurality appear also to believe the U.S. has an obligation to the Afghan government and a society that has been decimated by the conflict.
As retired Lt. General Doug Lute, who served in the Obama administration as deputy national security adviser and subsequently NATO ambassador, recently observed in a Senate hearing: "There is a potential outcome to this war that is worse than the current stalemate. An uncoordinated U.S. withdrawal in the absence of the kind of political and diplomatic progress will likely lead to civil war, the collapse of the Afghan state, and irresistible opening for transnational terrorists to widen their reach — conditions that define Afghanistan in the years leading up to 9/11."
The Doha agreement is at best the beginning of the end to the “endless war.” But absent a concerted effort, Lute’s words could be sadly prophetic.
- Jeff McCausland is a retired U.S. Army colonel, national security consultant for CBS Radio and visiting professor at Dickinson College. He commanded a battalion in combat, was a member of the National Security Council in the White House, and Dean of the U.S. Army War College.
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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