Earlier this month, President Trump stunningly revealed that he had canceled peace talks with Taliban leadership at Camp David after the Afghan militant group claimed responsibility for an attack in Kabul that killed 12 people, including a U.S. soldier.
Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad had held nine rounds of negotiations with Taliban representatives in Qatar designed to strike an agreement to withdraw U.S. troops in exchange for security guarantees.
But even as their negotiators met with Mr. Khalilzad, Taliban militants have been launching attacks, most recently in the northern city of Kunduz. The Taliban also claimed responsibility for two recent suicide bombings in Kabul.
Mr. Trump’s tactical pause means there will be no imminent deal, but it does not mean an agreement is entirely off the table. The president famously walked away from a bad deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi in February while keeping his diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang alive. His timetable for negotiations is flexible.
Afghans has a long history of being invaded, fighting outsiders as ruthlessly as they fight among themselves. It would be unreasonable to expect the Taliban negotiators to have full control over the entire spectrum of their movement, which includes many fighters who are irreconcilable.
The Taliban is not a monolith. Its deputy is Sirajuddin Haqqani, whom the State Department designated a “global terrorist” in 2008. The Haqqani Network is notorious for allowing al Qaeda to enjoy safe haven on the territory it controls and conducting violent suicide attacks against the U.S. military and its allies, civilians and the government of Afghanistan. The peace negotiations reportedly included a pledge to withdraw about 5,000 of the 14,000 U.S. troops in the country, in return for guarantees Afghanistan would not be used as a base for terrorist attacks. A complete agreement, which would include a withdrawal of remaining U.S. and NATO forces and effectively end the 18-year war, would hinge on successful intra-Afghan power-sharing talks.
The Taliban appear to lack the will, the capability, or both when it comes to stopping violent attacks on what its leaders call the “puppet government” in Kabul. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani continues to call for intra-Afghan dialogue and a cease-fire, neither of which appear to be on the near horizon.
Most important for U.S. national security is the recognition that Afghanistan is still a more failed state than a functioning one. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri remains at large. The Islamic State has established more than a foothold inside Afghanistan. We know from experience that terrorists would welcome another protracted and violent civil war in Afghanistan, which would afford them ungoverned space in which to plan attacks against us. Wide swaths of territory in the region continue to be a jihadi petri dish growing threats to our homeland. The Sept. 11 attacks changed the U.S. national security calculus. The world is more interconnected today than at anytime in our history. Our enemies can reach us in spite of the geographic separation that once gave us a unique measure of security.
The U.S. would rather not have a permanent military presence in Afghanistan or finance a costly nation-building mission on a grand scale, but for now there appears to be no alternative to maintaining a military footprint — however small — as long as peace eludes us.
Hosting members of the Taliban — who sheltered al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden as they planned their attack — at Camp David on the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks entailed significant political risk for President Trump. But no one should fault the president for seeking to bring our troops home and risking some political capital to do so.
Our best course of action with the Taliban would be a strategy of mistrust and verify. We can put off rolling out the red carpet in the U.S. until the Taliban leadership passes a basic test by traveling to Kabul with the mission of initiating the intra-Afghan dialogue on which future peace relies. Until then, we should be deeply thankful our brave patriots who take on the mission of protecting our nation.
• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.
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