The Wrong Way to End America’s Longest War

Wars are like nice family dinners; you can’t up and leave without serious repercussions. Unfortunately, President Donald Trump’s grasp of foreign policy is as weak as his grasp on social norms, as he believes we can rush out of Afghanistan the same way he avoids interacting with his family. 

Trump recently pushed for peace talks, in which American officials say that a “framework of peace” with the Taliban was agreed upon in principle. The deal essentially consists of full American withdrawal in exchange for a Taliban guarantee to no longer create a safe haven for terrorists.  Frankly, this treaty is a foolhardy endeavor, and if the U.S. wants to reduce its involvement in Afghanistan without harsh consequences, it must drastically rethink its policy in the region.

Illustration by Lo Wall

First and foremost, the current treaty will never work.  Trump’s impulsive declaration that he intends to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan severely weakens his negotiating position, signaling to the Taliban that it’s only a matter of time until we leave.  We come across as desperate for resolution, and will have to make serious concessions in the final agreement. 

Regardless, it is naive to think that leaving with a peace treaty will result in a positive outcome for the U.S. and, more importantly, the people of Afghanistan. First, the Taliban is a group with little unity in command, and if one section agrees to the terms, this does not mean any others will.  Second, the odds that the Taliban will respect any treaty in the long run are very low.  

The Taliban has no incentive for peace. Undeniably, it is an extremist group set on its goal to control Afghanistan, its own legitimacy resting on anti-western doctrine; conceding the country and bending to western powers will undermine this. The Taliban can also count on the likelihood that, once the U.S. leaves, it will not come back, as reengaging on the battlefield would be political suicide.  

Because the Taliban is unlikely to respect any treaty, pulling out means that Afghanistan will have to defend itself, something at which it has proven to be rather inept.  It is not an overstatement to say that the American military presence is the only thing supporting the legitimacy and state capacity of the Afghan government.  Even President Ashraf Ghani has claimed that Afghanistan will be unable to maintain its army for six months without U.S. support.  

The absence of American help will open the floodgates to a bloody civil war that the Taliban are likely to win. Acting on this treaty may, in essence, reestablish the terrorist-friendly regime that we sought to extinguish, and make it so that we won’t return in any meaningful way.

If a treaty is a poor option, the path to peace lies in a change of strategy. Since 2003, America’s approach to the Middle East has been built around unilateral action with few successes. Perhaps a multilateral strategy with regional partners, however unlikely, may be the answer.  

The irony here is that our most viable regional partner is Iran, a country that we are currently antagonizing. Cooperation between the U.S. and Iran may seem a bit farfetched, given history, but from a realist perspective, there are legitimate reasons for such a coalition to exist.  

To start, Iran has already played a role in Afghanistan’s post-Taliban development, and has linguistic and ethnic ties to its Shi’a Muslim population. More importantly, Iran doesn’t want to share a border with a rogue Sunni state with ties to Saudi Arabia, which Afghanistan would be under the Taliban. And if Afghanistan collapses again into civil war, Iran would bear quite a lot of the spillover.  There is no reason a rational state should risk having a hostile or failed state as a neighbor, therefore the prevention of such a possibility is in the interest of Iran’s national security.  

Bringing Iran into the fold will boost the legitimacy of the Afghan government and free the U.S. military to focus on counter-terrorism operations. American miscues have made the U.S. unwelcome — perhaps Iranian assistance would be better received.  

Worries that Iran will gain too much influence are unjustified, as Afghanistan is not a major global or political player. There is little worry for energy security, since new drilling techniques and recent discoveries in Texas mean that we’ve never been less reliant on Middle Eastern oil.  Those grumbling about the morality of the partnership should look to the White House’s relationship with Riyadh and realize the U.S. has never cared for human rights.

Enlisting Iran’s assistance will certainly be difficult, requiring the removal of sanctions along with serious diplomatic work. However, it is possible, and it will show the world that the U.S. is capable of cooperation and committed to peace rather than domination. 

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