Opinion: U.S. should exit Afghanistan, deal or no

Jerrod Laber

While all the attention in Washington is focused on impeachment, American diplomats are still conducting negotiations with the Taliban in Doha. The Taliban have reportedly offered a 10-day reduction of violence as part of an eventual agreement, and they were hoping to have a deal in place and signed by the end of January, according to a Taliban representative.

This is not the first time that we’ve been told that we were on the precipice of a deal. Given that the U.S. envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been reticent to speak publicly on the negotiations, it’s hard to know exactly where things stand. But the fact remains that these negotiations are merely a face-saving measure for the U.S. and not an actual road map for peace. The U.S. would do well to simply drop the facade and finally exit Afghanistan — with or without a deal.

The potential signing of an agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban is supposed to pave the way for an intra-Afghan dialogue to secure a lasting peace. But the current Afghan government has rejected wholesale the reported terms the Taliban are offering.

While the U.S. and Afghan governments have pushed for a cease-fire in Afghanistan, the Taliban have made it clear this is off the table, writes Laber.

The U.S. had previously pushed the idea of a total cease-fire as part of any deal, but the Taliban made clear from the beginning that such a thing was off the table, offering the 10-day violence reduction instead. Despite this, the Afghan government still insists on a complete cease-fire.

“Any suggestion the Taliban have shared with the U.S. must include cease-fire as it is the demand of our people,” said Afghan presidential spokesperson Sediq Sediqqi. Likewise, Afghan Vice President Sarwar Danish said that “[t]he plan to reduce violence is vague and is a type of fleeing from peace, and it is deceiving the people and the international community ... this will not solve the problem of Afghans.”

Speaking to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, President Trump even said he wants “significant” drops in violence before any negotiations — a term for which the Taliban will likely have a differing definition.

On top of this, the Afghan political scene is in total disarray. Despite holding presidential elections back in September 2019, no winner has been declared. Ghani was initially announced the winner, with just 50.6% of the vote. But there are hundreds of thousands of disputed votes that could ultimately be thrown out by the Independent Election Commission, which would push Ghani’s vote total below 50% and prompt a runoff.

This would seriously complicate an already complex situation regarding an intra-Afghan dialogue.

In addition, the Taliban have refused to negotiate directly with the Afghan government, expressing willingness to talk only to members of various groups that cut across Afghan society, which would possibly include government officials. With Afghan executive branch in disarray, and with internal divisions over how peace negotiations should play out, any dialogue will be difficult.

These difficulties may not be totally insurmountable, but the U.S. shouldn’t wait around to find out. The only vital national interest at play for the U.S. in Afghanistan is the physical security of the U.S. homeland. An agreement with the Taliban is not necessary to secure that. As military expert Gil Barndollar has written, even in the worst-case scenario of a victorious Taliban, “Americans will remain safe because of geography; U.S. global intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and strike (ISR-Strike) capabilities; and the U.S. military’s unmatched conventional deterrent capabilities.”

After more than 18 years, the U.S. should forgo further talks with the Taliban and exit Afghanistan. The heart aches for the ordinary Afghans whose lives have been turned upside down by this conflict. But the U.S. lacks the ability to command a positive political outcome. It’s well past time the U.S. recognize that.

Jerrod A. Laber is a senior contributor and foreign policy fellow with Young Voices. Follow him on Twitter @JerrodALaber.