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Charles Paige / Mar. 5, 2019

Not a Plan for Victory in Afghanistan

Talking to the Taliban isn't necessarily bad, but the U.S. must be careful.

Emboldened by President Donald Trump’s reported December directive to cut U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan by half, commentators from across the political spectrum have formed a chorus calling for an end to what they argue is a hopeless, seemingly never-ending war. Their arguments seem to be gaining traction, with the U.S. now reportedly offering to remove all of its troops over the course of the next five years in exchange for Taliban assurances. It’s not clear exactly what those assurances are and whether they’ll actually be observed, but the Taliban pinky promise that they’re sincere.

As we’ve highlighted before, the West’s efforts in Afghanistan don’t constitute a steady, 17-year pursuit of a particular strategy so much as a loosely connected series of political platform planks — invade-and-ignore; surge-and-withdraw; “the opposite of whatever the guy before me said and did.” Leaving the task of training and advising Afghan Security Forces to the Europeans while the U.S. focuses on counterterrorism, both ahead of a pre-determined withdrawal date, would just be the latest iteration of this schizophrenic dance. In contrast, the Taliban’s stated goals have held steady. They’ve adjusted their tactics and some of their talking points, but they’ve been consistently tenacious in pursuing both. Is it any wonder that many Afghans have sought to hedge their bets and allegiances given the two approaches?

While the “Afghanistan is another Vietnam” label has been used pejoratively for quite some time, abandoning the Afghans after repeated assurances that we wouldn’t and subverting the government we claim to support by excluding it from our discussions with the Taliban are arguably the most Vietnam-esque moves yet. As former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker [laments(https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/i-was-ambassador-to-afghanistan-this-deal-is-a-surrender/2019/01/29/8700ed68-2409-11e9-ad53-824486280311_story.html):

This current process bears an unfortunate resemblance to the Paris peace talks during the Vietnam War. Then, as now, it was clear that by going to the table we were surrendering; we were just negotiating the terms of our surrender. The Taliban will offer any number of commitments, knowing that when we are gone and the Taliban is back, we will have no means of enforcing any of them.

Negotiating with the Taliban is not in itself a bad thing. But entering the discussion having all but formally announced a significant drawdown or departure is called capitulation, not negotiation. It’s Barack Obama’s 2009 West Point speech all over again. Conceding to the Taliban’s primary demand — withdrawal of all “invaders” — with virtually no means to enforce their compliance with our demands is certainly not a “plan for victory.”

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