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Alice Wells, the top US diplomat for South Asia, met last week with senior Taliban officials. Why would the United States be talking now with the insurgency it pushed out of power for harboring the 9/11 masterminds? One answer is the Islamic State, which is competing with the Taliban in parts of Afghanistan. Another is President Trump’s view of Afghanistan as a “bad investment.” “Suddenly … the Taliban [have] become the best of bad options for controlling ISIS in Afghanistan,” says Nicholas Heras of the Center for a New American Security. But some former officials say the overture has more to do with State and Defense Department officials trying to anticipate and influence presidential action. “There’s a lot of concern in the bureaucracies of an abrupt action by the president to upset the appearance of commitment to Afghanistan,” says one former official, who requested anonymity. Mr. Heras sees the Washington debate “boiling down to two irreconcilable elements:” that Afghanistan in the era of “America First” becomes less and less relevant, and that the immense investment of American blood and treasure makes an honorable exit that upholds US interests a must for many.
The United States has a lot invested in Afghanistan: a longer war than both world wars and its intervention in Vietnam combined, more than $2 trillion, and more than 2,370 service members’ lives lost.
So why would the US choose now to enter into talks with the Taliban, the Afghan insurgency the US pushed out of power in Kabul in 2001 for harboring the Al Qaeda masterminds of the 9/11 attacks?
To understand the mounting signs of the Trump administration’s interest in negotiating some form of political deal with the Taliban, consider the conjunction of two key factors.
First is a US president, in Donald Trump, who has long considered Afghanistan a “bad investment” and who wants the nearly 15,000 US troops he begrudgingly agreed to keep there withdrawn – sooner rather than later.
Second is the presence in Afghanistan of the Islamic State. Despite pressure from both the US and the Taliban, ISIS continues to be an instigator of havoc inside the country and a cause for concern over the radical group’s potential to undermine broader regional stability.
Combine President Trump’s “America first” foreign policy, which promised to get the US out of “stupid” wars, with an equal promise to keep Americans safe from the terrorism of a West-hating extremist group like ISIS – and indeed to destroy it – and one outcome is talks with the Taliban, some regional experts say.
“There’s a certain logic to engaging with the Taliban now if you take together that President Trump was dragged kicking and screaming into the current Afghanistan strategy” of keeping thousands of US soldiers on the ground “with the fact that ISIS is still able to co-opt or flip parts of the country in the Taliban’s hands,” says Nicholas Heras, a Middle East security fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington.
“Suddenly for the US, as well as for all the regional actors with an interest in the conflict,” he adds, “the Taliban become the best of bad options for controlling ISIS in Afghanistan.”
Last week the top US diplomat for South Asia, Alice Wells, met with Taliban senior officials in Doha, Qatar, where the insurgency has a political office. The State Department did not confirm the Taliban’s statement that the meeting took place, saying only that Ms. Wells was in Doha as part of efforts to “advance a peace process in close consultation with the Afghan government.”
The meeting has since been characterized by both current US officials and former officials keeping close ties to the Trump administration as a preliminary exploration of future peace negotiations on Afghanistan, or “talks about talks.”
Concern at State and Defense
But for some former officials, the US initiative has more to do with foreign policy players that are supportive of maintaining a significant US role in Afghanistan – namely the State and Defense departments. According to the former officials, these policy-making bureaucracies are seeking to get out ahead of a president known for both sudden policy decisions and a dislike for the current Afghanistan policy.
Noting that the one-year anniversary of Mr. Trump’s reluctant decision to OK a mini-surge is coming up, one former US official says the recent Afghanistan diplomacy reflects a Washington apparatus trying to anticipate and influence presidential action.
“There’s a lot of concern in the bureaucracies of an abrupt action by the president to upset the appearance of commitment to Afghanistan,” says the former official, who requested anonymity to speak more openly. Citing the weekend killings in eastern Afghanistan of three Czech NATO soldiers in a suicide bombing claimed by the Taliban, the former official added, “The worry is that something like that could trigger” presidential action. “What if it were 10 Americans killed, and the news of it was carried in banner headlines across the front pages?”
Others flatly deem the recent meeting a mistake. Ryan Crocker, a former US ambassador to Afghanistan, is publicly airing his view that “nothing good” can come from talks that did not include any Afghan government representation.
Speaking on NPR Friday, Ambassador Crocker said the Taliban had scored a victory by holding talks with the US while excluding the government in Kabul, which the insurgent group portrays to the Afghan people as the “puppet government” of the US.
The US strategy in Afghanistan has broadly been to train and support national security forces capable of securing the vast country and to fortify the country's political stability. But the building up of these forces has been hampered by desertions and high casualties, while the government in Kabul has been undermined by political infighting and allegations of rampant corruption.
Of course, a morning tweet could change everything, but to this point, the president has shown no keen interest in Afghanistan policy, as some regional experts note.
Risk for Taliban, too
“I don’t know whether he’s spoken to it internally, but he hasn’t externally in any substantial way that we know,” says Laurel Miller, a senior foreign policy expert at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va. “It’s kind of a question mark where the White House is” on Afghanistan.
Ms. Miller, who served as the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan until the position was eliminated last year, says the Taliban also assumed some risk in meeting with the US to discuss potential peace talks. Noting that the Taliban’s comparative advantage vis-à-vis Kabul has always been its internal cohesion, she says the recent contacts may well have sown division among the ranks, with some opposing any suggestion of compromise with the US.
“The downside for them is the possibility that this step risks fracture” within their ranks, she says. “The upside is that it allows them to say, ‘See, this reinforces our view that this is just about the US’ and not, in their words, the ‘puppet regime in Kabul.’”
Where everyone seems to agree is on the point that any movement toward a peace settlement is in its very early stages – and may yet fizzle out. Afghanistan holds local elections this fall and then national elections, including for president, next spring – events that have drawn an uptick of violence in the past and hardened stances over political settlement with the Taliban.
Mr. Heras of CNAS says he sees the discussion in Washington of the way forward in Afghanistan “boiling down to two irreconcilable elements:” that Afghanistan in the era of “America First” becomes less and less relevant; and that the immense investment of American blood and treasure in Afghanistan makes an honorable exit that upholds US interests a “must” for many.
Those interests include a stable government in Kabul and guarantees that rights instilled by the long US and Western engagement, such as those of women and girls, will be maintained in some form.
A not-so-distant withdrawal
But at the same time, shifts in the US role in the country suggest to Heras that the US is trying to prepare the country for a not-so-distant withdrawal. Those include a move to refocus the efforts of US and NATO forces in securing Afghanistan’s urban areas – and a strategy encouraging NATO-trained Afghan security forces to largely pull back to the cities as well.
What the Pentagon and State Department want to avoid is a “Vietnam-type pullout” that leads in short order to a government collapse, Heras says.
And in any case, the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan, even if weakened, means that a US withdrawal is unlikely to be total, analysts say.
“Even if there is a peace settlement and a drawdown of most US and NATO forces, the US will have an interest in keeping some counterterrorism capabilities to confront ISIS and the remnants of Al Qaeda,” Miller says. She notes that while ISIS in Afghanistan may now be “internally focused,” the “open question” remains: “If left unchecked, could it be transformed into a transnational threat?”
Indeed, Heras says the “common concern” over ISIS among nearby actors – from Russia and Iran to next-door neighbor Pakistan – means that the region is likely to support an eventual peace settlement that recognizes a continuing US counterterrorism role in the country.