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Opinion | Uncertainty clouds the path forward for Afghanistan
By David Ignatius David Ignatius Columnist covering foreign affairs Email Bio Follow
U.S. troops patrol at an Afghan National Army base in Logar province, Afghanistan, in August 2018. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)
the military headquarters here where commanders oversee America’s
longest war, an official explains in one sentence the U.S.-led
coalition’s bottom-line objective: “Peace is a situation where we can
leave, and we don’t have to come back.”
will the United States move toward this endgame, as U.S. special envoy
Zalmay Khalilzad nears conclusion of his secret peace negotiations with
the Taliban jihadists that America has been fighting for 18 years?
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is said to have complained late last week
that a draft of Khalilzad’s agreement contains “mere promises”from the
Taliban and major concessions by the United States, according to a
knowledgeable Afghan source who talked recently with Ghani.
is particularly concerned, according to this Afghan source, about a
U.S. pledge to release 13,000 Taliban prisoners, a reference to the
Taliban as an “emirate,” a deal for “safe passage” of American troops
but not Afghan forces, and other measures that in Ghani’s view would
diminish the sovereignty and authority of the current Afghan government.
He also fears that presidential elections scheduled for September will
A visit here shows there aren’t
clear answers yet to the questions about transition that vex Ghani and
others who want a stable Afghanistan. When officials try to describe the
future, many begin with the word “uncertainty.” Nearly everyone
supports peace, but none of the half-dozen U.S., Afghan and European
officials I spoke with is sure just how it would work.
Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, who commands U.S. forces here, says he’s
focused on preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a sanctuary for
terrorists who could strike the United States and its allies. “The
outcome in Afghanistan should be about safeguarding the national
interests of the U.S. and our allies” by protecting their homelands, he
explained in an interview.
The hidden danger is
that if the Taliban does accept a peace pact with the United States,
die-hard jihadists will move to the black flag of the Islamic State’s
Afghan affiliate, which has built a base in the territory it calls
“Khorasan.” A U.S. intelligence analyst who focuses on “ISIS-K,” as it’s
known, says the group is recruiting operatives who can cross borders,
reach “seam cities” such as Tehran, Baku and Istanbul, and then operate
in the West.
The strange dynamics of the ISIS-K
fight became clear over the past two years in Jowzjan province, along
the northern border, and Ghor province, in the northwest, the
intelligence analyst says. Recruiters appealed to disaffected Taliban
fighters, and ISIS-K was gaining ground, with about 350 supporters in
Jowzjan and 200 in Ghor. But then it faced an unlikely double whammy:
U.S. counterterrorism forces struck the top leadership, and mainstream
Taliban fighters cleaned up the rest.
of ISIS-K, and its dual threat to the United States and the Taliban,
raises an intriguing possibility. Could the United States and the
Taliban quietly cooperate against a common enemy, after a peace deal?
Khalilzad’s draft agreement is said to contain language about the
“elimination” of ISIS-K. This shared interest could provide a rationale
for the United States to maintain a residual counterterrorism presence
in Afghanistan, even after withdrawing its main force.
would be a neat double-cushion shot, but analysts are cautious. “Can
the Taliban existentially make the leap to letting us stay?” asks one
official. “Their self-definition is that they exist to get out the
Americans and their hirelings.” If the mainline Taliban did agree to
this counterterrorism presence, would that cause more hard-liners to
defect to ISIS-K?
The best hope for Afghanistan
might be the simple fact that the nation is exhausted by war, and the
younger generation is sick of the warlords and thieves who wrecked the
country and profited from its misery. “Even if these talks fall apart,
they have engraved ‘peace’ as the only way forward. Even the warlords
are recalculating,” says one Western official who advises the U.S.-led
A glimpse of what the future might
look like came in an interview with Nasrat Rahimi, the 31-year-old
spokesman for the Interior Ministry. He deplored a new attack that
killed eight people outside Kabul University. The ministry blamed the
Taliban for the attack, though the group denied responsibility. “People hate this,” he said. “The only hope that my generation has is to see the end of the 40 years of war.”
modern history is a caution against optimism. “You can always default
to the negative in Afghanistan,” says the Western official. But
Khalilzad has pressed ahead, and he seems near a breakthrough agreement,
whatever its defects.
The United States has
spent so much blood and treasure here that the one unforgivable mistake
would be to leave without a clear counterterrorism strategy to prevent
our ever having to return.