A recent report in the Wall Street Journal states that the Trump administration is considering the withdrawal of American military forces from Afghanistan. No official word on this from the President, but there are indications that the White House so far has not approved a Pentagon request to send nearly four thousand more troops to the war. Some in the administration apparently are looking at the option of getting out altogether. Military withdrawal is the right choice for Afghanistan, but it needs to be combined with a diplomatic strategy for achieving a negotiated peace.
After 16 years of frustration in a war we are “not winning,” to quote Secretary of Defense Mattis, it is clear that no military victory will be possible in Afghanistan. If the United States and its allies could not defeat the Taliban in earlier years with more than 150,000 troops on the ground, trying to fight on now with a much smaller force is folly.
Military disengagement by itself is not a solution, however. Heading for the exits without a political and diplomatic plan for transition could make matters worse. In the absence of U.S. support, the Kabul regime would likely collapse, leading to a violent struggle for power and a potential repeat of the bloody civil war of the 1990s.
If Afghanistan is to be saved from further violence and chaos, the United States must join with other countries in a concerted diplomatic effort to end the conflict and negotiate an end to hostilities and an open political process leading to a power sharing agreement among the Kabul government, the Taliban and regional leaders.
The Wall Street Journal article reports that the Trump administration is planning to engage China, India and Pakistan in a regional peace plan. Russia, China and Pakistan have started trilateral talks. These are potential steps in the right direction, but an effective diplomatic strategy will require a much broader and more inclusive process under UN mandate.
Pakistan certainly must be involved, and Iran as well. India’s interests are also heavily at stake.
The goal of a political and diplomatic process would be to guarantee that Afghanistan is not used as a base for terrorist attacks against the United States or other states. This has always been and remains the primary U.S. and international strategic objective.
The negotiation process could also attempt to facilitate an Afghan-led political process for creating a new more inclusive and accountable system of governance in the country. A parallel diplomatic process will be needed among neighboring states to support the peace process and refrain from external interference.
As part of the bargaining process, Washington must be prepared to withdraw its forces and halt military operations. This is both incentive to the insurgents to accept a ceasefire and a message to Kabul that it must be prepared to restructure the government and share power. In this sense, the administration’s consideration of military withdrawal could suggest flexibility on a critically important and delicate issue.
Many in Washington have been skeptical of military withdrawal because it could spark further violence and instability and reduce U.S. political leverage. That might be true if Trump simply withdraws troops without seeking political and diplomatic agreements in the process. The better approach would be to link troop withdrawals to Taliban and Afghan government support for a ceasefire, security assurances against terrorism and a more open political process within the county. If this were to work, U.S. and international political objectives in Afghanistan would be met.
Admittedly the odds against such a strategy succeeding are enormous, but a concerted attempt to seek a negotiated solution at least should be attempted. Unlike the war option, a ceasefire and diplomatic process would lower the level of violence and reduce civilian casualties, which have increased to record levels.
A negotiated agreement for Afghanistan will need large-scale international support and third party security assurances. The record of other peace processes indicates that comprehensive UN missions help to enhance implementation success. Also necessary are third party security assurances to monitor and support ceasefire arrangements and protect those who engage in the political process. Taliban leaders have said in the past they would support a Muslim peacekeeping mission, which if authorized through the UN could include forces from Indonesia, Malaysia, and other countries.
The willingness to withdraw US troops could be key to setting a peace process in motion, but only if it is linked to a major diplomatic initiative. If Trump is serious about trying to end America’s longest war, he should keep the idea of withdrawal in play and use it along with the promise of continued American political and economic support to bargain for a diplomatic solution.