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.
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.”
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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