Reprinted from Project on Defense Alternatives with permission. Commentary on “Ending Our Endless War in Afghanistan: Washington Perspectives on a US-Taliban Agreement” – A US Institute of Peace panel w/ Michèle Flournoy and Stephen Hadley, February 18, 2020
In this February 2020 panel on the US-Taliban agreement, prospective Biden SecDef Michèle Flournoy emphasizes the “phased, conditional” nature of the negotiated US troop withdrawal, while herself suggesting some conditions that would essentially preserve the nation-building goals long advanced by the United States. And she avers that she “would certainly not advocate a NATO or US departure short of a political settlement being in place. That would be a disaster for everyone.”(46:03)
However, Flournoy’s conditions, including implementation of a finalized intra-Afghan peace agreement, significantly exceed those conditions set out in the Feb 2020 US-Taliban Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan. In other words, her putative support for the agreement is nothing of the sort. What’s more, her enhanced conditions might actually serve as poison pills. Her co-panelist, Stephen Hadley (who served as GW Bush’s National Security Advisor 2005-2009) concurs in advancing new conditions. He argues that the Taliban need to accept the current Afghanistan constitution and state institutions.
None of this overreach is surprising, given that both Hadley and Flournoy helped shape the policies that kept this war burning during their successive tenures, 2005-2012. The USA has long demanded that the Taliban simply fold itself into the political order crafted by the US occupation. But none (or not much) of this figures in the current US-Taliban agreement – which is why the Taliban are playing ball and we are moving toward ending US involvement in this conflict.
What does the hard-fought, long-sought agreement actually say? In order to trigger the full withdrawal of US and coalition forces by May 2021, the agreement only requires that (i) cease-fires are in place, (ii) the Taliban work to suppress Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups within their areas of control, and (iii) intra-Afghan negotiations on the country’s political future get underway. The agreement does not make withdrawal contingent on completion of an intra-Afghan agreement.
Both Flournoy and Hadley repeatedly stress that actually sealing a final an intra-Afghan settlement will require a long, hard slog. That may be correct – but also irrelevant to the US-Taliban agreement and US troop withdrawal, as long as the Taliban enact the conditions listed above. Apparently that’s not how either Hadley or Flournoy see it.
According to Flournoy and Hadley, what should happen if no final intra-Afghan settlement is reached? “What is Plan B?” – as one perspicacious audience member asked. Hadley says that Plan B is to make Plan A work – a weak joke that inadvertently reveals why the USA has been stuck in Afghanistan for 19 years: No Plan B except to surge Plan A. Flournoy, by contrast, picked up the gauntlet and inadvertently revealed why we’re likely to remain there indefinitely: “Plan B is [to] revert to where we are now and try to convince the Taliban and their supporters… to be more serious about moving forward.” Plan B is to replay Plan A. (Flournoy’s support for the 2009-2012 troop surge in Afghanistan is a point of contention with Biden, who opposed the surge. The surge more than doubled US troop presence. It nearly tripled annual US troop fatalities.)
Apart from demanding a final political settlement, which is more than the current withdrawal agreement requires, Flournoy also puts the onus of progress solely on the Taliban. This grants Kabul considerable freedom to demand more from the final settlement than conditions on the ground and the Kabul-Taliban power balance would imply. Kabul can simply refuse to move forward to a final settlement on any basis other than its preferred one. What would happen then? Presumably Flournoy’s “Plan B” – a reversion “to where we are now” – would occur. And to be clear, “where we are now” is US military presence, operations, and support. Put simply, “where we are now” is war.
The Flournoy-Hadley position seems to be that Washington either wins considerably more than what the US-Taliban agreement promises or it “stay the course” – a course now 19-years old. This view may lead the United States deeper into a position of “moral hazard” because Kabul is certainly listening and hoping to keep US dollars and troops fully engaged. The US presence, yes or no, may become Kabul’s choice if all it takes is for President Ashraf Ghani or the Afghan National Assembly to stonewall the intra-Afghan negotiations.
The unspoken truth is that the Kabul government, its institutions and security forces, its basic functionality, are nowhere without US power and support. Of course, no US policymaker wants, intends, or foresees “staying the course” forever. None expect or desire an endless series of resets, surges, or “do-overs.” But US policy regarding its costly regime-change, nation-building, and regional reform efforts is immured by denial and delusion about what can be accomplished by forceful US intervention. In their discussion of the Afghan prospect, Flournoy and Hadley seem unaware and unaffected by the numerous reports of Afghan government dysfunction, reconstruction failures, and security force depredations.
Similarly, Hadley makes the remarkable claim that (circa early 2020) Afghan security forces were “in the lead” combating the Taliban. Well, apart from the fact that they are losing, they remain wholly dependent on US intelligence, logistical support, and air power. Indeed, US fixed-wing aircraft dispensed more munitions in the 2018-2019 period than in the previous five years. And, until recently, there were approximately 25,000 US and allied troops in the country. Additionally, the United States employed 25,000 contractors. And US financial and material aid to Afghanistan has in recent years exceeded 25% of the nation’s GDP. This does not suggest a government that can stand on its own. It does not suggest that reliable stability is within reach, given just a wee bit of additional US intervention.
If the next administration hopes to end this seemingly endless conflict and bring US troops home, it needs to face facts about the character of the Kabul government, the balance of power on the ground, and the limits of outside intervention. These realities should be abundantly clear by now, albeit hard to swallow.
In light of current painful realities, Washington should council Kabul to seek a compromise settlement that it can have some hope of defending on its own. Beyond this, the coalition can increase Kabul’s leverage by offering diplomatic support and pledges of substantial reconstruction aid. Pakistan and the Gulf States might use similar means to moderate the Taliban’s position. Ruled out, however, should be any extension of US troop presence or other applications of US military power to decide Afghanistan’s future.
US expectations of Afghanistan’s future also need a strong dose of realism. America’s long and costly Vietnam intervention is instructive. In 1968, 13 years and 30,000 US deaths after President Eisenhower launched significant US military involvement, peace talks began. Five years and 30,000 US deaths later, the Paris Peace Accords were signed. A little more than two years after that, the US allied government in the south was overrun by Northern and Viet Minh forces. This much might have been expected given the balance of power and the dysfunction of the South Vietnamese government, which had been largely a creature of US power. Now, what about Afghanistan?
It is more likely than not that the Taliban will come to be the dominant actor in Afghanistan’s future. To this eventuality, outside states should be ready to adapt. Should the Taliban gain predominant sway, this need not and will not imply a replay of the period 1996-2001. The Taliban will grow their influence and moderate it by finding allies among players in the current governing order. There were in the past, are now, and will be in the future areas and opportunities for US-Taliban cooperation – such as stemming ISIS and limiting the drug trade.
What will be most difficult for the Biden administration is to face and admit the error of the Afghanistan regime-change, counterinsurgency, and nation-building efforts. As demonstrated by the USIP panel, there is a powerful temptation to deny past missteps and instead “stay the course.” And this temptation is especially strong among the architects of this foreign policy disaster.
Carl Conetta is director of the Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA). He was a founding co-director of PDA beginning in 1991. Formerly he was a Research Fellow of the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies (IDDS) and also served for three years as editor of the IDDS journal Defense and Disarmament Alternatives, and the Arms Control Reporter.