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Leaving Afghanistan: The way the U.S. does it is important

The United States is pretty clearly on its way out. Its best chance of leaving with some dignity requires the president to do a couple of things that are deeply out of character.

 

Zalmay Khalilzad
U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has announced a framework agreement under which the Taliban would pledge to keep Al Qaeda or other terror groups out, and the U.S. would withdraw its troops.
U.S Embassy/Handout via REUTERS

Mitch McConnell led 67 other senators in rebuking President Donald Trump last week for sudden moves to pull out of Syria and Afghanistan. Regardless, the United States is pretty clearly on its way out of Afghanistan. Its best chance of leaving with some dignity requires the president to do a couple of things that are deeply out of character.

Washington is most likely to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t once again harbor terrorists if it finds a way to coordinate with neighboring countries that also are U.S. rivals, particularly Russia and China. It should also open its doors to Afghan women and others threatened by a resurgent Taliban.

Trump’s point man on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has announced a framework agreement under which the Taliban would pledge to keep Al Qaeda or other terror groups out, and the U.S. would withdraw its troops. The U.S. insists the Taliban now agree to a cease-fire and start negotiating with the U.S.-backed Kabul government – something they so far have refused to do. Regardless, we’ve never been this far in negotiating an exit from Afghanistan.

The reaction in the U.S. foreign policy establishment has been predictable. Ryan Crocker, a distinguished diplomat and former ambassador to Afghanistan, sees similarities to the U.S. rush for the exits in Vietnam and predicts the Taliban are likely to retake the entire country. McConnell broke with the president, arguing that Al Qaeda and the Islamic State had not been defeated, and that U.S. national security requires a continued military presence in both countries.

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Leaving Syria aside here, we are long past the point of thinking the Taliban can be defeated militarily in Afghanistan. The U.S. is trying to salvage some prestige and stability, which would help justify the lives lost and hundreds of billions of dollars spent.

While the war has been largely a stalemate for years, the momentum now seems to favor the Taliban. A U.S. government report issued Thursday indicated that the Afghan government lost ground to the Taliban late last year. It said the government still controls territory on which more than 60 percent of the population lives. While most agree that no one actually controls a lot of Afghanistan, other experts say official U.S. statistics are too optimistic. Meanwhile, Afghan government battlefield losses appear unsustainable.

The Senate vote notwithstanding, public sentiment has been turning against long-term military commitments. Trump also has taken heat for his arbitrary approach to ending them. Numerous reports on the Senate vote pointed out that most of the Senate Democrats who have announced their candidacies for president, or are considering it, opposed McConnell.

The Taliban have indicated a willingness to ensure Afghanistan doesn’t become a terrorist haven – the one “must have” for the U.S. in these negotiations. Regional expert Anatol Lieven says the Taliban understand how disastrous their support for Al Qaeda was. Perhaps that’s true – but are you really willing to take them at their word?

To be certain, the Trump administration needs to engage in patient contacts with Russia, China, Pakistan, and yes, Iran. Some or all of them will try to make sure the U.S. leaves in the most humiliating way possible. The U.S. should anticipate their gambits and counter by pointing out the need for joint action. As Robert Kaplan outlines here, as long as U.S. forces remain, they are in effect protecting everyone else from Afghan-based extremists. If and when the U.S. withdraws, it becomes at least as much the neighbors’ problem. Russia and China in particular are concerned about extremism spreading from Afghanistan into their territory. The U.S. doesn’t have to be on particularly good terms with either country. But a measured approach based on common interests rather than Trump’s current mood could result in a unified message the Taliban has to take seriously.

No one wants to see Afghanistan’s most vulnerable – women, in particular – fall back under the thumb of the Taliban. Many Afghan women are living under Taliban control, of course, and areas under government control are not exactly a bastion of women’s rights, either. But there has been progress in education, representation in government and other areas.

The responsible action would be to prepare for more Afghan refugees – women and others who were given new opportunities by the long U.S. presence in their country — if it’s clear the Taliban is going to dominate Afghanistan. Many, of course, won’t be able to leave. Some won’t want to. Even offering the possibility may be asking the impossible of Trump, and it won’t be popular with much of his base. But once again there is an echo here to the Vietnam era. Decades ago, much of the country opposed admitting so many “boat people.” It turned out OK.

There also is a practical consideration. A new surge of refugees from Afghanistan would head primarily toward European Union countries, Lieven points out, further destabilizing them at a point when the EU is wobbling. U.S. leadership could ease some of that pressure.

The military and foreign policy establishment fear a repeat of the demoralizing withdrawal from Vietnam. But at this point, the U.S. is not going to leave a stable government that has the upper hand against the Taliban. Mostly, it’s just going to leave. Exactly how it does, however, is important. It’s still possible to secure an important goal, and perhaps claim a bit of moral high ground.