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[Vali Nasr] Draw down troops but step up diplomacy

President Barack Obama will want Americans to see his announcement of upcoming U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan as proof that we are defeating the Taliban. But for many, his decision will only confirm that 10 years of war, more than 1,600 American lives and $444 billion of taxpayer money have been wasted. The verdict need not be so dire.

It is possible to get to an acceptable outcome, but only if future troop drawdowns are tied to a clear plan for ending the war. Otherwise, a unilateral decision to withdraw will set the U.S. up for failure and spell disaster for Afghanistan.

Americans are ready to wash their hands of Afghanistan. It’s difficult to justify a war without end at a staggering price of $2 billion a week. Military victory against the Taliban has been elusive. A recent Senate report concluded that costly state-building efforts have achieved only modest success that could unravel once we leave. With Osama bin Laden out of the way and al-Qaida hobbled, many would argue, it’s time to declare victory and get out. The idea is that reconciliation talks with the Taliban could end the war, the Afghan National Security Forces could keep the peace, and a small contingent of U.S. special operations forces, backed by drone attacks, could guard against terrorist threats.

This scenario, however, is somewhat simplistic. Announcing our intention to leave altogether takes away the Taliban’s incentive to seriously negotiate a political settlement. What’s more, a quick withdrawal of all U.S. troops could provoke Afghanistan’s skittish neighbors, in particular Pakistan and Iran, to complicate our plans. A policy of “withdraw first, end the war later” will be read as “cut and run,” with chaos and instability expected to follow.

Those in the region with vital interests in Afghanistan will look past U.S. strategy and hedge against it. Without regional support for our plan, there will be no pressure on the Taliban to honor a final settlement. And if every player in the region follows its own strategy, any deal we make to justify our departure will quickly collapse, provoking a new civil war in Afghanistan.

Neither the Taliban nor Afghanistan’s neighbors see the Afghan military and police ― numbering about 297,000 and scheduled to grow to 305,000 by October ― as a credible force. Given its meager resources, Afghanistan can’t afford to support the security forces. Even if Washington were to convince Afghans and their neighbors that it will pay for the military and police indefinitely, doubts persist as to whether they will remain unified after the U.S. leaves. It’s more likely that they will break up into myriad militias and that our efforts to train and arm young soldiers and police will have only laid the grounds for a civil war to come.

Instead of touting the Afghan forces as the solution, the U.S. should announce that its future troop drawdowns will be tied to progress on a political settlement. Our counterinsurgency is unlikely to win the war, but our continued military footprint is a menace to the Taliban. Even if the Taliban think we cannot win, our presence means they cannot either. The price for our departure should be a lasting deal. We should not give away this trump card for nothing.

At the same time, the U.S. should embark on a serious diplomatic effort to end the fighting. It should start, before we talk to the Taliban, with intense engagement of all Afghanistan’s neighbors. It is in the interest of the Taliban to talk to the U.S. directly ― if only to hasten our departure. They could even agree to a quick deal if they see no regional mechanism to enforce it once we’re gone. But the region’s backing would deny the Taliban the support they need to continue fighting. And it would make clear that a final agreement would be protected by a broad international coalition.

There will be little chance of success if we ignore the fact that the neighbors have interests in the negotiation process. For the 2002 Bonn Agreement that shaped the new Afghan state after the fall of the Taliban, the U.S. secured Iran’s support but not Pakistan’s. In response, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf lost no time rearming the Taliban to undo the agreement. This time, the U.S. must have both problematic neighbors on board. That means mending fences with Pakistan over counterterrorism efforts and setting aside the impasse over the nuclear issue to talk to Iran about Afghanistan.

Many Afghans are wary of a deal with the Taliban. They fear a return to the dark days of the 1990s. There are once again murmurs that Tajik and Hazara communities that once formed the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance will pursue armed resistance to a Taliban push to the north. Afghan factions opposed to a faulty peace deal and backed by skeptical neighbors could spell another civil war in which Iran, India and Russia would once again arm resistance to the Pakistan-backed Taliban.

Getting to peace in Afghanistan will require U.S. leadership and a significant diplomatic push to bring together various Afghan parties, and regional and international actors. The process should culminate in an international conference that would include all stakeholders. The timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal should be tied to the outcome of such a conference, which would lay the foundation of final status talks with the Taliban. Diplomacy did not feature in the president’s 2009 decision to send a surge of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. Making diplomacy possible should be at the heart of his decision to take those troops out. 

By Vali Nasr

Vali Nasr is a Bloomberg columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. ― Ed.
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