The United States signed a peace deal with the Taliban in Qatar Saturday. If conditions in Afghanistan stay at their current level of decreased violence, we will begin returning most of our troops from the longest war in our history.
The deal itself has numerous conditions that the Taliban must meet including severing all ties with terrorist organizations and negotiating in good faith with the Afghan government toward a lasting agreement. The withdrawal of some U.S. troops, as well as prisoner swaps that will release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners, are part of the initial confidence-building measures.
This was the right decision by President Trump from an array of not very good options. And that is what a good leader does, makes a tough but smart call when it would be easier to simply maintain the status quo.
No one, including our negotiators, expects the Taliban to be honorable in abiding by this agreement. Their nature and history have shown they will act ruthlessly in their own interests.
Nothing can be achieved without significant pressures placed on them and even more significant repercussions for malfeasance. But we have not been able to impose our will on them using military force, so we must acknowledge that and move on.
That’s the thing about war. We can make all the plans and strategies we want, but the enemy and reality get a vote too. Almost twenty years of U.S. blood and treasure had not taken us to a victory any more lasting than when we first deposed the Taliban at the end of 2001.
They ruled Afghanistan then as tyrannical theocrats and had given safe haven to Al Qaeda who planned and executed the 9/11 attacks from there.
We had to make a strong response and we did.
In a few short months, Special Forces teams partnered with indigenous militias and defeated the Taliban. But then we went wrong.
The decision to stay and try to make Afghanistan a more stable and peaceful place that also presents less potential danger to us is easy to understand. But it was fundamentally flawed and at odds with the long history of that country.
The hellish terrain and tribal nature of the country made all previous attempts to impose order on it short-lived and painful for any outsiders involved. We can now join Alexander the Great, the British Empire, the Soviet Union and a host of others in not achieving this.
One of the main rationales for staying was that if we left we would allow another Al Qaeda to rise that could threaten us from a mountain retreat.
This is a legitimate fear as it has already happened. But we are aware of that and while keeping a seemingly permanent force there is one way to try and avoid this, there are other ways to achieve this goal.
Earlier this month in an op-ed for Fox News Opinion I wrote about a proposed one-sided withdrawal statement telling the Taliban and others what lines must not be crossed:
- No terrorist bases in Afghanistan.
- No safe passage, safe haven or any other support for terrorist groups.
- No attacks on U.S. personnel or interests.
I suggested the statement could also say, “We believe it would be better if you created a society that was not oppressive, brutal and often barbaric; but we are not the world’s policeman or domestic violence shelter. We will offer a hand of friendship and aid to those trying to make Afghanistan a better place. We will bring a rain of hellfire and damnation down on any who violate these demands.”
I think as a backstop to the peace deal, all of these factors that I laid out in the op-ed are still applicable. There are many things we would like to see in Afghanistan, but they do not rise to the level of U.S. strategic interests.
We put considerable effort into raising the status and quality of life for women there and gains have been made. There are concerns these will be eroded and if that happens it will be a significant loss. But if that is the standard, then there are dozens of countries around the world where we could make an equal case for intervention.
We must choose our foreign entanglements wisely as George Washington noted in his farewell address:
“I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.”
His point was that occasionally U.S. interests require alliances or actions abroad, but these should always be weighed against the tendency for them to draw us away from what truly matters to this country. Afghanistan itself does not. Terrorist safe havens there would. We should take the least entangling path to safeguard ourselves from that possibility.
This initial agreement begins the disentanglement process and that seems the best path for us. We can always return to military action if an actual rather than potential danger emerges.