As the U.S. Withdraws from Afghanistan, a Reckoning

2.77 million servicemembers. 5.4 million deployments. $5.6 billion spent. 14,771 U.S. deaths. The Afghan War can be measured in many ways, but the United States’ abrupt truce with the Taliban to end the war has sent seismic shifts across world politics. Although the agreement is tenuous and has not been fully detailed, the decision to possibly withdraw from Afghanistan has led world leaders, government contractors, and Afghan officials to scramble for information, try to figure out how U.S.-Afghan-Taliban relations will continue in the future, if at all.

A source has described the accord as a U.S. ceasefire in exchange for the Taliban’s compliance with Afghan government mandates. These include the end to violence inside Afghanistan and the prevention of international groups, such as Al Qaeda, from using Afghanistan as a haven for terrorist attacks. The Taliban have been a rebel political group in Afghanistan since 1994.

Although the primary U.S. negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, offered words of encouragement, there was still widespread insecurity about the safety of deal, as well as its implications for U.S. capabilities. “We have a draft of the framework that has to be fleshed out before it becomes an agreement,” Khalilzad said. “We felt enough confidence that we said we need to get this fleshed out, and details need to be worked out.” What is “confidence” to Khalilzad is concern for others, however; without full details, the nuances of policy in the Middle East are uncertain. Furthermore, some are afraid that the U.S. withdrawal will cause a power vacuum in the region, leading to a rise in extremism and illiberal regimes.

For the United States, the withdrawal signals that the Afghan War truly was unwinnable. Security experts had long railed against America’s policy of perpetual war without transition, but few had predicted negotiations with the Taliban, which have apparently been going on for nine years. Many envisioned a transition to a solid Afghan state, marked by a gradual waning off from U.S. support in the region. Instead, U.S. support, if any exists, will likely have to be divided between the fledgling Afghan government and the Taliban, whose responsibility it is to ensure that Afghanistan remains terror-free.

An intelligence assessment on the withdrawal from troops was commissioned in 2017, finding that a hasty withdrawal would completely destabilize the Middle East. Former U.S. defense secretary James Mattis pointed to nearly twenty groups whose actions threatened the tenuous stability of Afghanistan when discussing the issue, arguing that an imprudent withdrawal could lead to the loss of twenty years of military progress.

On the Afghan side, there are worries that the talks undermine national sovereignty. A leaked document written by Laurel Miller, a former U.S. diplomat, outlines a possible peace deal, which includes changes to the Afghan Constitution, an interim government, and new elections, which include some Taliban candidates. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who is running for a second term this year, has roundly rejected the proposition, claiming that he will not yield to the rebel group who once captured Kabul and overthrew the government.

But peace talks could rely on the ability for Taliban candidates to stand for elected office. A senior Taliban official did not say whether his side would agree on a ceasefire with the Afghan government, while the United States would likely demand a ceasefire to leave the region. Prominent security analysts, such as Ms. Miller, have noted that a withdrawal agreement would need to be gradual and predicated on the ending of conflict, and the defense of the Afghan government from terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

There are also concerns that continued Taliban correspondence with Al-Qaeda prevents the full dissolution of a comprehensive terror network in the Middle East. Although the Islamic State largely is independent of other terrorist forces in the Middle East, Al-Qaeda/Taliban relations continued since the 1990s. American officials worry that a hasty withdrawal may create a series of weak governments who would fall quickly to a coordinated effort from a dedicated terrorist force.

There is also internal conflict among U.S. lawmakers. Although U.S. President Donald Trump has pushed for the immediate recall of soldiers from Afghanistan and Syria, senior officials such as Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan have argued for a more muted and reserved approach to peace in the region. Shanahan, who has been the primary foil to President Trump’s plans for a mass exodus from the Middle East, has argued for a stable and slow transition to Afghan power over the region.

As the talks in Doha, Qatar continue, and plans become more concrete, it is likely that the both Afghan and U.S. presidents will weigh in on the ongoing agreements. Although executive control of foreign policy has historically been extremely important, both Trump and Ghani have shown to be inept at international affairs. Although Ghani’s comments are likely to carry little clout for the Taliban, an incendiary interview may cause the talks to fall apart. The same is true for Trump, whose Twitter feed has often served as a form of pressure on lawmakers and public officials, most recently on American federal interest rates.

Perhaps, then, as independent negotiators try to end a nine year negotiation and a twenty year war, it would behoove untrained national lawmakers to remain on the sidelines, letting professionals negotiate for peace in the Middle East.

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