THE WAR IN AFGHANISTAN
Talking to the Taliban
A deal to end the Afghan insurgency would be wonderful—as long as it is not a figleaf to cover an American retreat
AFTER MORE than 17 years, it is the longest war in American history. American forces are no closer to defeating the Taliban—the repressive Islamist militia that ruled most of Afghanistan before 2001—than they were a decade ago. In fact, the share of the country under full control of the elected, American-backed government is humiliatingly small. The conflict has reached something close to a stalemate, but a bloody one: some 10,000 police and soldiers, 3,400 civilians and an unknown number of insurgents died in 2017 alone. Since then, the authorities have stopped releasing data on military casualties—not, presumably, because things have got better.
THE NEWS that America and the Taliban are making headway in negotiations to end the conflict is therefore welcome (see Asia section). Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s chief negotiator, says the two sides have agreed on a “framework”for a deal. America would withdraw its troops in exchange for an undertaking from the Taliban not to provide sanctuary to foreign terrorists, as they once did for Osama bin Laden. The Taliban would also have to agree to a ceasefire and begin negotiations with the Afghan government, which they have long denounced as an American creation.
THE GOALS of drawing the Taliban into peaceful politics and thus extricating America from a costly and destructive conflict are the right ones. But there are, sadly, many reasons to fear that the framework will not produce either outcome. For one thing, the details will be thorny. The Taliban already sound lukewarm about the ceasefire and the talks. Setting the order in which the agreed steps are taken could also be a stumbling block, especially when it comes to the timing and pace of America’s withdrawal.
ANOTHER WORRY is that the Taliban will promise the moon to rid themselves of the Americans, on the entirely reasonable assumption that, even if they go on to break their word, theGIs are unlikely to return. The American-led mission in Afghanistan is called Resolute Support, but the resolve of President Donald Trump, at least, is clearly dissipating. He has made no secret of his desire to bring American troops home, and given no sign that he values the things their presence achieves.
BEFORE AMERICA toppled the Taliban regime, Afghanistan was a violent theocratic despotism. Women were not allowed out of their homes unless covered head to toe and accompanied by a male relative. Any departure from the Taliban’s barbaric version of Islam, such as dancing or shaving or educating girls, could earn floggings, imprisonment or even death. Ancient statues were dynamited as pagan idols. Keeping such zealots at bay, for as long as they try to impose their beliefs by force, is an incalculable benefit to the two-thirds of Afghans (some 24m people) who live in government-controlled areas.
THERE ARE benefits for America, too. If the Taliban were to overthrow the Afghan government after an American withdrawal, it would be a humiliation on a par with Vietnam. Even if the government staggered on, a pull-out without a solid peace agreement would cause chaos. Regional powers such as China, India, Iran, Pakistan and Russia would all struggle to fill the vacuum. At best, the result would be a gruesome surge in fighting; at worst, the whole region could be destabilised. An offshoot of the Taliban in Pakistan set off something close to civil war there in 2014. America could easily be sucked back in.
WITH A force of 140,000, America could not wipe out the Taliban. But with a mere 13,000 troops bolstering the Afghan army today, it seems able to keep the insurgents more or less in check. Mr Khalilzad should be clear that America is looking for a durable settlement, not a figleaf to cover its retreat. Its troops should stay until the Taliban show that they are sincere about taking up politics and laying down arms. Otherwise, the Taliban will have no reason to change their stripes—and Afghanistan, already at war for 40 years, will be condemned to yet more conflict….
(THE LONDON ECONOMIST, FEBRUARY 2nd, 2019)