Afghanistan after Syria will be shaped in part by the policy and attitudes that went into the U.S. withdrawal from Syria. A brief on three key points helps frame the discussion on Afghanistan, especially as the Trump administration is expected to look into withdrawing from other overseas wars to invest attention and resources at home.
Negotiating With the Taliban
Negotiating with the Taliban wasn’t the initial goal of U.S. presence in Afghanistan. The initial goal was to kill Osama bin Laden. After Tora Bora, the decision was made to defeat the Taliban. After defeating the Taliban, the decision was made to engage to build Western institutions and security forces in what is, essentially, a medieval society.
In terms of negotiating with the Taliban, there are two issues:
- Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada stated he will accept nothing less than complete withdrawal of all coalition forces. Akhundzada has been forthright about his goals for the Afghan Taliban and what will come after, including wanting direct talks with the United States instead of speaking with the current Afghan government, which he sees as only a puppet regime. It’s also worth noting that in 2016, al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahiri pledged allegiance to Akhundzada.
- There is nothing in the Taliban’s record to suggest it will honor what concessions are agreed upon in Qatar after coalition withdrawal.
What the U.S. Should Have Done in Afghanistan
The best move forward in Afghanistan included deepening U.S. ties with the Afghan Northern Alliance and declaring the Tajik provinces semi-autonomous. To the extent that the Taliban provided aid and assistance for al-Qaeda, this would have provided the U.S. with a staging area and a safe zone from which to directly launch successful attacks to eliminate the first tier of Taliban leadership. From there, it should be anticipated that a ‘rinse and repeat’ policy should be enacted every two to three years because after all, this is a multi-generational conflict. There is no such thing as victory, but there is success.
The side that will be successful in the war against terror is the side that remains the most committed over time. Here, time is not measured in years but in decades and generations.
What Can Still be Done in Afghanistan After Syria
Unlike the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, any potential U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan needs to include a consultation with senior military officials with a record of experience, including experts in national security and intelligence community sectors.
As the border-wall debate continues to wedge into national headlines as a priority for the Trump administration, it’s very possible that an exit from Afghanistan will be initiated in order to reallocate funding to the border wall.