President Donald J. Trump’s surprise announcement that he was withdrawing an invitation to the Taliban and the Afghan government to meet with him at Camp David has left unclear the status of peace talks with the Taliban. This provides a much-needed opportunity for a reset of negotiations so that previous mistakes can be amended.
Mistake #1: Negotiating Without the Afghan Government
The U.S. envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, was said to have reached a tentative agreement with the Taliban for the United States to withdraw its forces over the next sixteen months in return for hard-to-enforce promises from the Taliban to break with al-Qaeda, deny their territory to international terrorist groups, reduce violence, and negotiate with the Afghan government.
The danger of this approach is that it would abandon a U.S. ally in Kabul while leaving the Taliban free to step up their offensive once U.S. troops depart. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani might have suffered the same fate as President Mohammad Najibullah, who was overthrown and eventually killed after the Soviets withdrew their troops in 1989. That’s why so many of Trump’s allies, and even his national security advisor, John Bolton, have been intensely critical of the draft accord.
Rather than focusing on a way to withdraw U.S. troops, Trump would be better advised to focus on a way to end a war in Afghanistan that has been raging, in one form or another, for forty years. That means working with, rather than excluding, the elected representatives of the Afghan people.
History suggests that a unilateral deal made by the United States without the support of its local allies is unlikely to last; witness the fall of Saigon two years after the 1973 Paris Peace Accords between the Nixon administration and North Vietnam. A better approach is for the United States or some other third party to facilitate talks between the parties in a civil war—as happened in Havana between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas from 2012 to 2016.
So far, unfortunately, the Taliban have been unwilling to meet with the government in Kabul, which they view as an illegitimate American puppet. By negotiating with the Taliban anyway, and cutting Ghani out of the process, Khalilzad sent the Taliban the wrong signal. He led them to conclude that they would not have to accommodate themselves to the existence of Afghanistan’s democratically elected government—or the freedoms it has granted to the people of Afghanistan, especially to women.
Mistake #2: No Cease-fire
Another mistake that the administration made was not to insist on a cease-fire as the price of a U.S. troop drawdown. The agreement reached by Khalilzad has not been publicly released, but apparently it calls on the Taliban to reduce (rather than end) its attacks and does not hold the Taliban responsible for stopping attacks by other terrorist groups such as the so-called Islamic State and the Pakistan-based Haqqani network.
Trump said he was calling off the Camp David meeting because the Taliban had just killed a U.S. soldier in Kabul—but Khalilzad had not demanded that they stop such attacks as the price of an accord. American negotiators should rectify this mistake in the future.
Mistake #3: Signaling Total Troop Withdrawal
It is entirely possible, of course, that the Taliban will not agree to any of these terms. But better no deal than a bad deal.
Even without an accord, the United States can probably afford to reduce its troop presence in Afghanistan to around the level—roughly nine thousand troops—from when Trump entered office. The president should realize that he will pay a lower political cost for maintaining a small U.S. troop presence in a primarily noncombat capacity rather than risking the uncertain consequences of a total withdrawal. President Barack Obama’s troop pullout from Iraq in 2011 offers a cautionary lesson: the resulting power vacuum led to the rise of Islamic State and necessitated the return of U.S. forces.