As developments and news about the COVID-19 virus still dominate the headlines, we remind ourselves that the fight against terrorism is not over. And while we are more hopeful than ever for peace, our service men and woman are still deployed to Afghanistan and still face dangers in our nation’s longest war. Eight U.S. soldiers have been killed so far in 2020 in Afghanistan. Numerous others have been wounded. Our military personnel also face danger in other places such as Iraq and Africa.
On February 29, 2020 the U.S. signed a tentative peace deal with the Taliban. There were four main parts of this tenuous agreement: 1) Assurances from the Taliban that they would not allow their country to harbor terrorists and terrorist training camps; 2) A full withdrawal of all U.S. and allied troops over the next 14 months; 3) A permanent ceasefire after a seven day period in which there was reduced violence on the part of the Taliban; and 4) That the Taliban would negotiate with the Afghan government—not try to overthrow it.
At the signing, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that “peace negotiations” were the key to success in Afghanistan—not war. While his statement is likely true, I found myself wishing that we could tell that to the 2,400 U.S. troops who died there and the over 21,000 who have been wounded. It has been a bloody and costly war, in terms of lives and money. But President Trump is correct when he has repeatedly stated that we need to get out of Afghanistan and, also, to end the “never-ending” wars around the world. It was not only a campaign promise for him; it also reflects the sentiments of most people in our nation.
I understand why we invaded Afghanistan after 9-11. I do not understand why we have stayed there almost nineteen years—nor does President Trump. His instincts as Commander-in-Chief that it is time to get out are correct. Some believe that the bureaucracy in D.C. and some of the brass at the Pentagon are why we have not left sooner; that is more than likely true.
The treaty with the Taliban is conditions-based, not tied to a calendar date. On the one hand, that is good. However, as Secretary of Defense Esper remarked that the U.S. leaving depends on what the Taliban does, a word of caution is warranted. To a large extent this is true. If the Taliban began allowing terrorists to find safe harbor in that country and so forth, we would need to counteract. But we must remember the Taliban itself is a terrorist organization. On the other hand, the Taliban is part of the warp and woof of Afghan society. We cannot change that or the fact that Afghan culture and governance is based on tribes and tribal leaders. A centralized national government is foreign to them—even though they now have one.
Can the Taliban be trusted? Yes, and No. Thus far, they have honored the pledge not to kill Americans and their allied troops. Recent attacks that took American lives have been committed by ISIS with the exception in February when an Afghan soldier opened fire killing two and wounding six U.S. troops; the Afghan soldier was related to the Taliban. The Taliban will likely honor the treaty because they want the United States forces out of the country. At the time of the signing of the treaty, 13,000 U.S. troops were deployed there. That number is to decrease to approximately 8,600 over the coming weeks—with all forces gone by April of 2021. The U.S. and NATO have already begun to withdraw some troops from Afghanistan.
On the other hand, the Taliban is significantly decentralized throughout that country, though we are negotiating with its leaders. Rogue elements of the Taliban may attempt to sabotage the peace. Further, the Taliban pledge to not overthrow the elected government there is doubtful, once U.S. forces are completely gone. It has long been the goal of the Taliban to rule Afghanistan under Sharia Law; most of the country was in control of the Taliban when U.S. forces arrived in the fall of 2001. This threat to the government is exacerbated by the corruption in the Afghan government and by the fact that two men are now claiming to be the legitimate president. President Ashraf Ghani and his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, have both declared themselves the country’s president in dueling inauguration ceremonies earlier this month. Thankfully, the final pullout of U.S. forces is not dependent on the success of intra-Afghan negotiations but rather on promises made by the Taliban to deny space in Afghanistan to other terror groups, such as the insurgents’ rival Islamic State group.
What happens if the Taliban attempts to overthrow the Afghan government? What happens if the Taliban attempts to reimpose Sharia Law across the country? The short answer is probably the correct one: That is ultimately not our problem. It is not that the United States does not care. But we must face the reality, as apparently our President does, that we cannot impose Western-style democracy on a nation and its people who either do not understand, or who do not want it. "Countries have to take care of themselves," President Trump stated at the White House on Friday. "You can only hold someone's hand for so long."
The national security interests of the United States are why we sent troops to Afghanistan. If the portions of this treaty with the Taliban that impact our national security concerns are violated (allowing terrorists to gain safe haven in Afghanistan) we have options other than sending in thousands of troops. These options include surveillance of Afghanistan using satellites and flyovers, cruise missiles and other “stand-off” weapons systems, and small Special Operations missions.
We have achieved success in Afghanistan: Osama Bin Laden is dead, and al-Qaeda was decimated there. While elements of al-Qaeda and ISIS remain, Afghanistan is no longer a significant refuge for those who seek to destroy us. Billions of dollars have been unaccounted for in Afghanistan due to corruption and a weak, ineffective central government. It is time not only to bring our troops home; it is also time for Afghanistan to both find its way and pay its way in the world. Other than direct humanitarian aid through USAID and various NGOs (non-governmental organizations) it is time for our dollars to come home, too.
Many nations and leaders have tried to both conquer and administer Afghanistan. They have failed. Just ask Genghis Kahn, Alexander the Great, and the leaders of the former Soviet Union. Afghanis, and the Taliban, have a very long view of history. But it is their country and their history. We must acknowledge that and wish them well.
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