Daily Briefing: The Pending Afghan Withdrawal Agreement: A Good Deal?

A U.S. Army Soldier patrols with Afghan soldiers to check on conditions in the village of Yawez in Wardak province, Afghanistan.
(Source: Flickr)

 

Table Of Contents: 

The U.S. Abandoned Iraq. Don’t Repeat History in Afghanistan:  General David Petraeus and Vance Serchuk, WSJ, Aug. 9, 2019


In Afghanistan, No Deal is Better than a Bad Deal:  Clifford D. May, FDD, Aug. 14, 2019


Is the Afghanistan Deal a Good One?:  Michael O’Hanlon, Brookings,Aug. 16, 2019


The U.S. is Nearing a Deal with the Taliban. But Another Major Threat Looms in Afghanistan: The Islamic State:  Pamela Constable, Washington Post,Aug. 20, 2019

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The U.S. Abandoned Iraq. Don’t Repeat History in Afghanistan
General David Petraeus and Vance Serchuk
WSJ, Aug. 9, 2019
 
The announcement of a peace agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban is said to be imminent, after years of combat and months of negotiation. The U.S. will reportedly promise to reduce its military presence in Afghanistan in exchange for a Taliban commitment to cooperate against international terrorism and enter direct talks with the Afghan government.

For Americans as well as Afghans, any possibility of settling this conflict is cause for hope. But even as citizens in both countries pray for peace, leaders in Washington must proceed with caution. While diplomatic progress with the Taliban may justify a reduction in U.S. force levels, under no circumstances should the Trump administration repeat the mistake its predecessor made in Iraq and agree to a total withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan.

A complete military exit from Afghanistan today would be even more ill-advised and risky than the Obama administration’s disengagement from Iraq in 2011. Iraq had largely been stabilized by the time the last U.S. combat elements left, with al Qaeda having been routed during the 2007 surge. In Afghanistan, by contrast, the Taliban are far from defeated, while some 20 foreign terrorist organizations like al Qaeda and ISIS retain a presence in the region. It is unlikely that any will join a peace deal.

The idea that the U.S. can leave if the Taliban promise to combat rather than conspire with these groups is also wrongheaded. Until the Taliban demonstrate they have both the determination and the capability to work with the Afghan government against international terrorists—and there is ample reason to doubt this—common sense dictates the U.S. must retain its own means to pressure extremist networks plotting against the American homeland and U.S. allies. This can be accomplished only by having some number of capable American forces in Afghanistan, along with substantial “enablers” such as unmanned aerial vehicles and close air support.

While Iraq’s sectarian unraveling after the U.S. withdrawal in 2011 was a possibility that some foresaw, it was far from assured. If the Trump administration orders a full pullout from Afghanistan, there is considerably less doubt about what will happen—full-blown civil war and the re-establishment of a terrorist sanctuary as existed when the 9/11 attacks were planned there.
The Taliban have clearly indicated what they will try to do once U.S. forces are gone: overthrow the Afghan government and reimpose medieval rule. Their resistance to a formal cease-fire, continued barbaric attacks on civilians, and opposition to elections scheduled for this fall are all warning signs. Such a conflagration is likely to reinvigorate the flagging fortunes of Islamist extremism world-wide and the global terrorist threat—which, despite the destruction of Islamic State’s territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria, is by no means defeated.

Some have suggested that, should Afghanistan implode following the departure of American ground troops, the U.S. can simply adopt an “offshore” counterterrorism strategy—relying on drone strikes and targeted raids from afar to disrupt plots. That is a fantasy. Unlike Yemen or Somalia, landlocked Afghanistan is distant from U.S. air bases. For all the wizardry of technology, drones can fly only so fast and stay aloft only so long. Effective counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan—and, just as important, in neighboring tribal areas of Pakistan—will prove all but impossible absent an enduring U.S. footprint on Afghan soil.

Others say it still isn’t worth staying even if Afghanistan is poised to collapse without U.S. troops. In an era of resurgent great-power competition and record deficits, the thinking goes, keeping U.S. forces in Afghanistan is an unaffordable distraction from other, more pressing national issues. This, too, is wrong. The cost of retaining a few thousand troops in Afghanistan pales in comparison with the price the nation will pay, strategically and economically, if al Qaeda or ISIS rebuilds a terrorist platform there. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
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In Afghanistan, Do Deal is Better than a Bad Deal
Clifford D. May
FDD, Aug. 14, 2019
 
Two years ago this month, Zalmay Khalilzad, the distinguished diplomat who has served as America’s ambassador to both Iraq and Afghanistan, praised President Trump for adopting “a realistic position regarding peace talks” with the Taliban, “moving away from President Barack Obama’s pursuit of reconciliation regardless of the deteriorating military situation.”

A year later, Mr. Khalilzad was appointed U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. Since then, he has adopted an unrealistic position regarding peace talks with the Taliban, moving toward President Obama’s pursuit of reconciliation regardless of the deteriorating military situation. If I’m wrong about this, I’ll be pleased to eat my words. But the evidence is compelling.

Afghanistan is often called America’s longest war. It would be more accurate to say that Afghanistan is the longest battle in the very long war being waged against America and the West by a motley crew of Islamic supremacist groups and regimes.

When the Taliban held power in Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, they declared an Islamic emirate, enforced an extreme and bloody version of Sharia, Islamic law, severely oppressed women and girls, and provided Osama bin Laden with a safe haven from which to plot the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In response to that atrocity, President George W. Bush demanded that the Taliban hand over al Qaeda’s leader. They refused, so U.S. forces removed them from power. That turned out to be the easy part. Standing up a functioning Afghan government, and training Afghan security forces to defend it has been a slow and painful process.

Meanwhile, with assistance from Pakistan, among America’s least reliable allies, the Taliban re-grouped, and began fighting a guerrilla/terrorist war to regain power.

That brings us to the present. Ambassador Khalilzad is expected to soon announce a “peace agreement” with the Taliban. They will reportedly promise to cooperate against international terrorism. In exchange, the United States is to reduce its military presence in Afghanistan. What’s the problem with that? The Taliban are committed to jihad, and their alliance with al Qaeda is ironclad. To take them at their word would be naive and foolish.

If we can’t trust, we must verify. But that requires a continuing military and intelligence presence in Afghanistan. Which implies reducing troop strength only if we see progress — not based on the calendar. If the Taliban are demanding the latter, Ambassador Khalilzad should walk away.

Gen. David Petraeus, former commander of coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Vance Serchuk, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, wrote in The Wall Street Journal last weekend: “A complete military exit from Afghanistan today would be even more ill-advised and risky than the Obama administration’s disengagement from Iraq in 2011.”

That withdrawal, we now know, precipitated the rise of the Islamic State and facilitated aggression and terrorism by the Islamic Republic of Iran. The alternative that Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Serchuk propose is not “a plan for leaving but a strategy for staying — one that carefully minimizes American, coalition and Afghan costs and casualties but accepts the necessity of a sustained and sustainable troop presence to safeguard vital U.S. interests.”

Though the Taliban currently control or contest large swaths of Afghanistan, they hold no major cities or provincial capitals. The president could order a small, largely symbolic troop reduction — currently, about 14,000 Americans are deployed in that Texas-sized country — and still retain a force large enough to continue helping Afghan security forces contain the Taliban in rural areas while ascertaining whether they are meeting their commitments.

The message would be clear: If the Taliban have a serious interest in peace and reconciliation with other Afghan factions — not least the Afghan government which has not been included in Mr. Khalilzad’s talks — there’s a path. If, however, the Taliban seek America’s defeat, retreat and humiliation, followed by a bloody campaign to seize power, their ambitions will be frustrated.

A strategy for staying also will allow us to maintain a base in Afghanistan for counterterrorism operations throughout South Asia; to have resources in place to strike terrorists wherever in the region they train or plot against Americans.
Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Serchuk add: “The cost of retaining a few thousand troops in Afghanistan pales in comparison with the price the nation will pay, strategically and economically, if al Qaeda or ISIS rebuilds a terrorist platform there.”

On the diplomatic front, it’s high time to get tough on Pakistani leaders — both elected and deep state — whose influence has not been exercised for our benefit and that of the long-suffering Afghan people. The continuing existence of Taliban and al Qaeda safe havens on Pakistani soil is a significant reason these groups have proven resilient.

We’re now in an election season. President Trump can boast that his policies have put the American economy back on the fast track. He also can say that his Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council are developing — at long last — coherent policies for defending Americans from their multiple enemies around the world.  With all this in mind, he should tell his Afghanistan envoy: “Zal, a successful deal-maker like me knows that no deal is better than a bad deal. Recycling Obama’s failed policies is not how we make America great again. A couple of years ago, a distinguished diplomat gave me advice along exactly those lines. Come to think of it, that diplomat was you.”
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Is the Afghanistan Deal a Good One?
Michael O’Hanlon
Brookings, Aug. 16, 2019
 
According to teases leaked by the American negotiating team, it appears that an interim Afghanistan peace deal may be in the works between Washington and the Taliban. Details are far from clear to date. But the main contours of any agreement seem to be a renouncing of extremists by the Taliban, the withdrawal of several thousand American and NATO troops, together with an indefinite partial ceasefire, or at least a sustained reduction in violence by all parties. If that is indeed the deal — it’s not yet clear if the ceasefire would happen early on, as it must for the idea to make any sense from a U.S. and Afghan government perspective — there may be promise to the concept, provided that not only the Taliban but the Pakistani government support it as well. These initial steps would be followed by negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government over some future type of power-sharing, after which the preponderance of the remaining U.S. and other foreign forces would leave the country as well. It is crucial that the remaining U.S. forces not withdraw until a power-sharing arrangement has been well-established.

I have been highly skeptical of this year’s peace talks, even though they have been led by the wily and wise Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad (an Afghan-born American who was President George W. Bush’s envoy to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the United Nations). The Taliban’s abject unwillingness to meet with representatives of the elected and constitutionally-legitimated government of President Ashraf Ghani, together with the belief of the Taliban leadership that America wants out and will use the peace talks as a fig leaf to cover a retreat from the country, provided grounds for extreme caution. President Trump’s announcement last December that he would soon cut the U.S. troop presence in the country in half, unconditionally and abruptly, was one of the two issues that apparently sparked the resignation of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis — and revealed the president’s apparent true intentions about a mission he never really supported in the first place.

The incipient deal does indeed contain potential pitfalls. Moving several thousand troops out of Afghanistan is a costly and difficult process that is hard (though not impossible) to reverse. By contrast, carrying out a ceasefire is something the Taliban can easily do for a few days, or weeks, or months, and then find some excuse to violate once the U.S. forces have drawn down. According to reports, the current number of GI’s might be cut from perhaps 14,000 to 8,000, more or less; the overall foreign troop presence including other NATO nations might decline from about 20,000 to 12,000 or so.

But this deal, insofar as it goes, would be OK. It would hardly merit a Nobel Prize in the first instance and could in fact fall apart — we should recognize that possibility with eyes wide open. Yet it is still an acceptable risk, if the reports of its main parameters are in fact correct.

First of all, cutting the NATO troop presence by say 40 percent, while militarily disadvantageous in some ways, is not reckless. Doing so would return American and NATO force totals to roughly the level President Trump inherited from President Obama back in early 2017, or perhaps a bit less.

Second, violence is the main instrument of influence that the Taliban possess, and any deal that required them to stop it comprehensively and indefinitely would therefore, for as long as it lasted at least, achieve what has effectively been our principal objective in Afghanistan all along. In a conflict where as many as 20,000 Afghans have been dying per year, most of them security forces or Taliban fighters, this would be welcome news. The longer it lasted, the more it could allow the Afghan government and economy to gradually stabilize, strengthening the nation. Initial reports that the deal might have included a general ceasefire indeed proved too good to be true. It now appears, based on an August 18 Washington Post story, that the Taliban are promising a reduction in violence instead. That reduction will have to be quite significant and sustained, but if it is, the interim deal might indeed pass reasonable muster, at least for a time.

Third, from what is known of the deal to date, no further cuts in NATO forces would be promised or planned until some kind of deal emerged between President Ghani and the Taliban. Admittedly, finding a deal will be very difficult considering the parties’ animosity towards each other — given all the blood that has been spilled, and how very different their visions may be for the country. Moreover, both sides think they are in positions of strength for those talks: Ghani, because he is the internationally-backed leader of the country, and because his country’s security forces, aided by NATO to be sure, still control areas of the country where about 60% of the population lives, including all the country’s big cities; the Taliban, because they have been gradually gaining territory over the years and because the West is tired of this war and clearly wants out. Further, the Taliban view Ghani as a stooge of the international community who cannot survive in power on his own. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
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The U.S. is Nearing a Deal with the Taliban. But Another Major Threat Looms in Afghanistan: The Islamic State
Pamela Constable
Washington Post, Aug. 20, 2019
 
The official government line here is that the Islamic State has been defeated.

The local branch of the extremist Sunni militia, Afghan officials say, has been corralled into a mountainous area near the Pakistani border by Afghan and U.S. forces and can no longer control populated areas. They say it has been reduced to staging suicide attacks against “soft” targets, like the wedding party bombing here on Saturday that killed 63 people and wounded 190. “We have eliminated their bases in the east, and they are concentrated in very small areas. They cannot fight our forces face-to-face,” Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, said Tuesday.

But local leaders in the border provinces of Nangahar and Konar tell a different story. They say Islamic State forces continue to terrorize villagers in areas under their control, forcibly recruiting boys and banning girls from school. They and U.S. officials say that Taliban and Islamic State forces have continued to fight each other, but that they also fear that some Taliban fighters will join the more ruthless Islamic State forces if Taliban leaders make a deal with U.S. officials.

The United States and the Taliban have been holding talks on an initial agreement for months. The top U.S. negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, was expected to arrive in Qatar on Wednesday to prepare for the final round of negotiations after receiving President Trump’s blessing. In the current draft, the deal outlines the initial withdrawal of about 5,000 U.S. troops in exchange for a Taliban pledge to sever ties with al-Qaeda. It also calls for the beginning of Taliban talks with the Afghan government and planning for a cease-fire.
But the agreement does not mention the Islamic State, a sworn enemy of the Taliban that is considered by far the bigger terrorist threat. In a report to Congress last month, the Defense Department said that even if a settlement is reached, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and some Taliban hard-liners will constitute a “substantial threat” to Afghanistan and the United States, requiring a “robust” counterterrorism capability for the “foreseeable future.”

All three groups are extremist Sunni militias, but they differ in background and behavior. The Taliban is a domestic Afghan movement with deep roots in its society. Al-Qaeda is an international Islamist terror network that has been largely eliminated. The Islamic State is a Middle East-based guerrilla force that seeks to establish a geographic caliphate.

On Sunday, Khalilzad said in a tweet that success in the talks “will put Afghans in a much stronger position to defeat ISIS.” U.S. officials believe that the Taliban, already battling the Islamic State, can be a force multiplier for U.S. counterterrorism efforts against the group.

The Islamic State in Afghanistan is estimated to number between 2,500 and 5,000 fighters, according to figures from the U.S. military and the United Nations. The U.S. military estimated that the total was around 1,000 active fighters in 2017. But there is widespread concern here that those numbers could rise even more if the Islamic State uses a U.S.-Taliban agreement to siphon off hard-line Taliban fighters who are opposed to the deal and ramp up its terror war.

The Islamic State is “trying to position itself as being able to reap the benefit of any fissures in the Taliban after a peace deal,” said one Western official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter. He said the group had posted messages criticizing the Taliban for “negotiating with the enemy.”

Asked Tuesday if the militants were gaining strength, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted that the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate, centered in Iraq and Syria, was gone. But, he said in a CBS interview that comported with Defense Department comments about Afghanistan, “there are certainly places where ISIS is more powerful today than they were three or four years ago.” … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

For Further Reference:

 

Michael O’Hanlon on Afghanistan War and Possible U.S. Troop Withdrawal:  C-Span, Aug. 25, 2019 — Michael O’Hanlon from the Brookings Institution talked about the possibility of U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The Draft Afghan Peace Plan, Explained:  Pamela Constable, The Washington Post, Aug. 16, 2019 — The proposed Afghan peace deal presented Friday to President Trump by the administration’s top peace negotiator would accomplish the president’s major goal of beginning to withdraw thousands of U.S. forces from the country, after nearly 18 years of fighting and just over 2,400 U.S. personnel killed.

Lindsey Graham to Offer Backstop Plan for Afghanistan, Amid Troop Withdrawal Concerns:  Catherine Herridge, Alex Pappas, Fox News, Aug. 22, 2019 — Sen. Lindsey Graham plans to introduce legislation as early as next month to create a backstop measure in Afghanistan requiring the secretaries of state and defense to certify that dropping troop levels would not endanger U.S. national security, as President Trump moves toward agreeing to a phased withdrawal of troops, Fox News has learned.

U.S. Says It Is ‘at the Threshold’ of an Afghan Withdrawal Agreement: Craig Nelson, Wall St. Journal, Sept. 1, 2019 – With a landmark deal with the Taliban nearly completed, the U.S. diplomat overseeing peace talks with the insurgents arrived in Kabul on Sunday to brief top Afghan officials on the accord and to discuss next steps on a comprehensive settlement of the nearly 18-year Afghan war.

Leaving Afghanistan: Hawks and Doves Weigh Risks Susan Crabtree, RealClear Politics, Aug. 21, 2019 — The Trump administration’s push to finalize a peace deal with the Taliban over the last week was twice interrupted by deadly explosions in Afghanistan, a reality check that any serious U.S. military drawdown in the war-torn country in no way guarantees a peaceful transition.