With US set to exit Afghanistan, is legalizing the Taliban the way to end the war?

A US combat role is slated to end in Afghanistan by late 2014, and negotiations go on over terms for keeping US troops there for training. But some analysts see a need to do a deal with the Taliban, sooner or later.

Patrick Kane/The Progress-Index/AP
Troops from the US Army 54th Quartermaster Company say goodbye to family and friends before departing Fort Lee, Va., on Oct. 30 for a deployment to Kuwait and Afghanistan. US 'combat operations' are slated to end in Afghanistan by late 2014, but thousands of US troops may stay on in other capacities.

As the White House grapples with just how many US troops should still be in Afghanistan by the end of next year, some longtime Pentagon advisers are increasingly convinced that any “plausible” deal that ends the longest war in American history will involve legalizing the Taliban.

Others say President Obama should continue to keep US force levels in the tens of thousands so that they can continue to train Afghan soldiers in the art of running an army.

More than 12 years after US troops began fighting in Afghanistan and after thousands of lives lost, it is an “inconvenient fact” that the Afghan National Security Forces will not be ready to secure their government or their territory after 2014, says Frederick Kagan, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a former member of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategic assessment team back when the general, now retired, commanded US forces in Afghanistan.

US "combat operations" are slated to end by late 2014, although that doesn’t necessarily mean that any US troops left on the ground at that point will be doing any less fighting, Pentagon officials note, because they will be tasked with training, which often means fighting alongside Afghan soldiers and police. 

If the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF, as they are known in Pentagon parlance) are unable to win the war outright after 2014 – a fair possibility, given that they are unable to win the war now with the help of US troops, helicopters, and intelligence assets – ”that leaves only two plausible long-term outcomes to the conflict,” says Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow in defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former adviser to now-retired Gens. David Petraeus and McChrystal in Afghanistan.

One is a “negotiated settlement with the Taliban at some point, whether near or distant,” he told lawmakers at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Middle East subcommittee last week. “The other is defeat for the Afghan government.” 

A settlement with the Taliban “represents at best a least-bad option,” Dr. Biddle said. “But a deal along these lines would nevertheless be preferable to outright defeat and, properly structured, could preserve the two core interests at the heart of the US war effort: that Afghanistan not become a base by which militants could strike the United States or our allies in the West, and that Afghanistan not become a base for destabilizing its neighbors, including Pakistan.”

Today, analysts and many US lawmakers believe that the White House will opt to leave a US force of some 8,000 to 10,000 troops in the country, though the administration has warned that the “zero option” could be on the table if Afghan President Hamid Karzai does not agree to certain legal protections for US troops.

In a series of recent congressional hearings and think tank discussions, Washington continues to debate the proper number of US troops to stay in Afghanistan post-2014.

Seth Jones, a former adviser to US Special Operations Forces and an analyst at the Rand Corp. sees between 8,000 and 12,000 US forces “that really let Afghans do the bulk of the fighting” as “probably being sufficient.”

Other analysts would like to see the US keep more of its troops in the country. “If the requirement in Afghanistan to achieve vital US national security interests is 15,000 troops but the White House is only prepared to put 12,000, is the president really prepared to put up a fight over 3,000 troops?” asked Dr. Kagan at a Foreign Policy Initiative discussion last month.

Retired Gen. Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff for the Army and now the chairman of the board for the Institute for the Study of War (a think tank run by Kagan’s wife, Kimberly Kagan), told lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week that the “residual” US force size post-2014 should be about 20,000 US troops. 

At the same hearing, Kagan warned that 20,000 troops would be a “very high risk” but that, “with a great deal of difficulty, it’s feasible.” 

He added that, on the basis of his assessments, the force size should be “upwards of 30,000.” 

Mr. Keane came with another request: that the US continue to fund the 352,000 Afghan security forces through 2020, and not reduce the funding as many in Congress have advocated. “We’re actually arguing over what – $2 billion or $3 billion a year for five years?” Keane said. “That makes no sense to me whatsoever.” 

On this point, lawmakers chided Keane about the “offhand way” he was describing the costs of the war. 

“Here in Washington these days we have debates in every one of our committees about where we spend money and how we spend money and what our priorities are, and I don’t think it’s irresponsible for us to struggle through ... whether $2 billion or $3 billion a year more in Afghanistan is something that we should be spending,” said Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Middle East subcommittee.

Another lawmaker asked Keane what the cost of keeping 30,000 troops a year in Afghanistan would be. “I don’t know,” Keane replied.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) of California said the estimate the committee had received from the Pentagon was about $30 billion.  

“This isn’t a couple billion,” he said.

He then posed another question. “Could the fact that we haven’t won yet indicate that there’s something wrong more fundamentally, other than we don’t have enough troops there?” he wondered aloud, before directing another question to Keane.

“General, you were in Vietnam,” Mr. Rohrbacher began. “Do you think that we just needed to keep a couple extra troops there and the situation would have cleared itself up?”

Rohrbacher did not wait for a response, but went on to note that $15 billion is the “whole gross national product” of Afghanistan.

He then proposed a less conventional end to the war. “I assure you, with the experience that I have had in Afghanistan, which is extensive, that for $3 billion we can buy off every tribal leader and every political leader in that country,” Rohrbacher said. “And for an extra $1 billion, there can be smiles on their faces and they can wave American flags,” he added. “Just get our troops out of there.” 

The Pentagon will bring US force levels – currently at some 54,000 – down to 34,000 by February, just before Afghan presidential elections scheduled for April. 

The White House says it is still negotiating with Mr. Karzai over a bilateral security agreement to keep troops in Afghanistan past the end of 2014.

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