Nine former U.S. envoys to Afghanistan put their names on an article posted on the Atlantic Council’s blog on Tuesday. The article, titled "U.S.-Taliban Negotiations: How to Avoid Rushing to Failure," makes the argument that if a major withdrawal of U.S. troops occurred in Afghanistan, the country would fall into a "total civil war."
The article was posted just a day after U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad announced an agreement was made between the U.S. and Taliban for a withdrawal of 5,000 U.S. troops over the next five months. The deal is still pending approval from President Trump.
While the point these diplomats make about Afghanistan falling further into civil war after a U.S. withdrawal may be true, this article is full of the usual taking points that has kept the U.S. in this seemingly endless war. Afghanistan has been ravaged by civil war for decades, and while 14,000 U.S. troops maintain a presence in the country today, almost daily violence still occurs.
The diplomats write, "we believe that U.S. security and values, including support for women, require that a full troop withdrawal come only after a real peace." The Taliban have maintained that they would only negotiate with the U.S. backed government of Kabul once all foreign troops left Afghanistan, until then fighting will continue. The Taliban see the government as nothing more than a puppet of the U.S. On the Taliban website, they even refer to policeman they kill as "puppets."
The article says after a U.S. withdrawal, "it is likely that the Taliban would maintain their alliance with al-Qaeda." While the al-Qaeda were welcomed in Afghanistan after bin Laden was kicked out of the Sudan in 1996, the Taliban have long sought to get rid of their troublesome guests. Before the attacks on September 11th, after the al-Qaeda bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kenya in 1998, the Taliban offered to put bin Laden on trial for his crimes against the U.S.
"Even before the (9/11) attacks, our Islamic Emirate had tried through various proposals to resolve the Osama issue. One such proposal was to set up a three-nation court, or something under the supervision of the Organization of the Islamic Conference," Ahmad Muttawakil, a former foreign minister for the Taliban, told Al Jazeera in 2011. The Taliban made these proposals through the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. Robert Grenier, the former CIA station chief in Pakistan at the time, confirmed that such proposals were made.
After 9/11, the Taliban were willing to hand bin Laden over to a neutral third country if the U.S. halted bombing in the very early days of the war. Their only demand was for the U.S. to show evidence of bin Laden’s guilt. President Bush refused to be involved in any kind of negotiation with the Taliban and continued the war.
The fear of al-Qaeda plotting another 9/11 in Afghanistan if the U.S. left is one of the most common arguments used to keep troops in the country. But al-Qaeda has not had a strong presence in Afghanistan since 2002. When asked about the number of al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan in 2010, Leon Panetta, who was President Obama’s CIA director at the time, said, "At most, we’re looking at 50 to 100, maybe less."
The Islamic State (IS) does have a presence in Afghanistan and carried out an attack in August at a wedding in Kabul that killed 63. The Taliban were quick to condemn the attack, "Such barbaric deliberate attacks against civilians including women and children are forbidden and unjustifiable," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement. Part of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal is for the Taliban to keep IS from growing stronger in Afghanistan. Critics of the peace deal pointed to this attack as grounds for the U.S. not to leave, but the attack occurred despite a U.S. troop presence.
The Pentagon deems the IS presence in Afghanistan a threat to the west, but intelligence officials in Washington disagree. The intelligence community thinks they are just a group of local militias who have pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State, and pose no threat of organizing a worldwide terror attack.
The diplomats argue that the U.S. should support free and fair elections in Afghanistan and say, "The fundamental point, however, is that the United States should not be determining the answer to such an essential issue for the future of the Afghan people. That decision must be theirs."
The government of Afghan president Ashraf Ghani in Kabul is entirely propped up by the U.S., without foreign aid the government will almost surely fall. In 2017, according to the U.S. AID website, U.S. aid to Afghanistan totaled around $5.7 billion. $4.4 billion of that aid money went to the "Afghanistan Security Force Fund" and was implemented by the U.S. Department of Defense. To put that in terms of how much money that is in Afghanistan, the total GDP for the country that year was just over $20 billion.
The future of the Afghan people should certainly be up to them, but propping up a government that would not be sustainable after a U.S. withdrawal does nothing to help.
"Some may say that this is just a concealed way to keep the United States and its allies engaged in a major war," the diplomats write, taking into account America’s war weary skepticism. They go on to minimize and down play the recent violence in Afghanistan, "our current involvement is no longer a major war for us. The Afghans are already doing almost all of the fighting and the dying. U.S. fatalities are tragic, but the number of those killed in combat make up less than 20 percent of the U.S. troops who died in non-combat training incidents last year."
2018 was the deadliest year for civilians in Afghanistan since the UN started tallying civilian deaths in 2009. The UN found that in the first six months of 2019 the U.S. and pro-government forces were responsible for 52 percent of the civilian deaths in Afghanistan. Meaning the U.S. and its allies killed more civilians than the Taliban have this year. The numbers of civilians killed in the first six months more than doubled in comparison to the first six months of 2018. While the American deaths are tragic to the nine diplomats, the Afghan civilians, mostly killed by the U.S. coalition, are barely a blip on their radar.
Perhaps one of the most embarrassing facts about the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is that the Taliban control more territory now than they have since the U.S. invaded in 2001. The U.S. mission in Afghanistan is an utter failure. The presence of IS, the Taliban’s mistreatment of women and strict interpretation of Islam do not justify the continued occupation. The presence of foreign forces prolongs the inevitable, either further civil war and the collapse of the government in Kabul, or the small chance the two sides will negotiate a real peace.
Dave DeCamp is assistant editor at Antiwar.com and a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn NY, focusing on U.S. foreign policy and wars. He is on Twitter at @decampdave.