First we have a solid agreement among Afghans, then we back civil society and isolate the Taliban, then we empower the new Afghanistan backed by regional forces.
WHY IS U.S. IN AFGHANISTAN?
The United States was attacked on 9/11 and had to defend itself by removing the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. That’s the genesis of the war in Afghanistan. It’s not a colonial war or an oil and energy matter. The core of the issue is to ensure that the Taliban or other jihadists won’t come back to power and relaunch attacks against American presence in the region or against the homeland. We could have achieved this goal at some point during the last 18 years, but unfortunately we didn’t. That doesn’t mean we should allow the Taliban to win and take back the country and threaten us again. One failure should not lead us to another failure. There is another way to do it and we need to change strategies, as I elaborate below. As for the American public, they will understand if we explain it to them. Past Administrations either never explained it at all or explained it inadequately. This Administration should explain Afghanistan, and for that matter, the Middle East, better to our citizens.
WHY NOT LEAVING?
Some ask that why not leave Afghanistan—a far-away country that is difficult to stabilise, let alone democratise—in the hands of the Taliban? They argue that in such a scenario, would the costs for Washington of a potential Taliban takeover outweigh the benefits of extricating itself from the war, or vice versa?
Long distance is not a reason to consent to catastrophes, neither in Venezuela nor in Afghanistan. I don’t agree that it is impossible to stabilize the country. We simply didn’t do the last and necessary chapter of our work. We won every kinetic battle, but we haven’t waged the vital war of ideas, I had been calling for this since I published my book, Future Jihad, in 2005. Many in the military and the intelligence analyst circles agreed with me more than 15 years ago. We did half a war in Afghanistan, the more expensive one in blood and treasure, but not the fundamental part that has to do with minds, not just arms.
Often, people in Washington confuse and conflate many levels in Afghanistan. It is not war or no war; it is not defeating the Taliban or surrendering the country to them. This is too simplistic. It is about using the precious time and space provided to us by our military when the Taliban were removed to help develop realities that can eliminate the Taliban from the equation. Under the Bush Administration the war of ideas was weak, under Obama it was a non-existent. The Trump Administration should wage that war, inexpensive but smart, so that any pullout would be strategic move aimed at strengthening its civil society, not a surrender.
NEGOTIATE WITH THE TALIBAN?
Another question is about talks. We are often asked why not negotiate directly with the Taliban without the Afghan Government described as incapable? In my view it is a mistake. The Afghan government should deal with the Taliban in their country and the Pakistan government should talk to the jihadists in their country. Worse, we should not involve the backers of the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar, in such talks. This was an Obama policy that should not be continued by the Trump Administration. On 22 July, I wrote on Twitter: “I am concerned about the so called plan for #Afghanistan reached by our negotiators in #Qatar. The plan basically surrenders the country to the #Taliban…” Our approach to the Taliban is wrong. We should engage the government in Kabul and the various civil society forces and tribes, not the Taliban. If my plan had been applied, the balance of power inside Afghanistan would have changed dramatically by now and the jihadists (Taliban and others) would be isolated. What sources have revealed so far from the Doha talks is that the road to peace is in fact a road for the return of the Taliban to Kabul. If the dialogue was about disarming the Taliban and transforming them into an unarmed political party, which would work under the present Constitution and agree to free elections, then that would be a different story. What sources are describing is a process that would allow the US to leave during the gradual integration of the Taliban into the government under a new “Islamist Emirate Constitution”.
TALIBAN HAVE NOT CHANGED
The Taliban did not change their ideology, strategies or long term plans. They are waging what they call a “ground jihad” while “talking” to the US in Doha. The first is designed to impact the second. They are escalating the violence so that our negotiators are under pressure. Classical tactics by radicals. This thinking is similar to what I called in my books Jihad is Yoga. So blowing up schools and killing women, artists and journalists is fighting for freedom? I am amazed that in the post 9/11 era there are public voices in America that haven’t yet understood the Taliban and the jihadists. The latter would give you a ceasefire to leave, but not a ceasefire to agree on a non-violent future. They want power in Kabul, period.
AL QAEDA AND TALIBAN
Al Qaeda and Taliban are strategic allies. The Taliban can use some “political taqiyya” with the US, that is, promise that they will not allow international terrorism to be launched from Afghanistan, and then after the US withdrawal, they will start backing jihadists in the region, then farther away. Soon enough they would host training camps under their control. They may start negotiating with ISIS and other groups. You can’t control or rely on those who call terror bloodshed against their own civilians a “fight for freedom”.
TALIBAN HELPING AGAINST TERRORISM?
I am not privy to the negotiations per se, I only judge on results. But what we are hearing is similar to the talking points advanced by the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Jazeera and Qatar over the years. I even heard these same talking points during the Obama Administration years. The points do not surprise me, what surprises me is that there is an effort to convince the current Administration to adopt them, since the Trump Administration has always been committed to opposing the jihadists and ran on that opposition during the campaign of 2016.
You don’t need to be a political scientist or an intelligence analyst. This has been common knowledge since 2002. Any serious study of the relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda since the 1990s would clearly show that it is based on ideology and shared history. Why should the US have to experience this again? If the Coalition withdraws completely, the Taliban will move to seize power and territory and then reinstall Al Qaeda and maybe cut a deal with ISIS to regenerate the Caliphate. Do you think they will abide by a piece of paper signed in Qatar?
TALIBAN JUSTIFIES 9/11
The Taliban blames 9/11 on US interventionism. This is their old narrative, which has never changed and is yet another argument against trusting them at this point. As a matter of fact, this is a talking point which has been aired by Al Jazeera since the fall of 2001. Ironically, it is also used by Iranian regime’s propaganda arms. Not so different from Soviet propaganda.
EXCLUDING THE GOVERNMENT?
Excluding the Afghan government, executive branch and Parliament is a strategic mistake and political sin. We waged a campaign to remove the Taliban, defended the country’s population for 18 years, helped them to set up a quasi-democratic process, spent money and lost personnel, just to surrender the country to war hardened jihadists in 2019? We talk with the enemy we fought and ignore the ally we helped rise? We ignore civil society, tribes and minorities just to cut a deal with a Caliphate to be? That can’t happen under a Trump Administration. Of course there are alternatives to the current situation and we can discuss them, but a deal with the Taliban is not an alternative Americans would want.
The governments of Afghanistan, over the last few decades, have not been well-organized, successful or very efficient, but progress was made. We should help fix the mistakes not make a greater mistake and allow the entire project of recovery to crumble. We should meet with their elected Government, their civil society and our allies to move forward. Then all of us together could engage the Taliban, if at all.
I haven’t read the final official version, but the pieces I was able to have access show that if we cut a deal with the Taliban without the rest of the country, we would be helping in the establishment of a new Caliphate in Central Asia. The Taliban are calling for a deal with the US not because of our presence, but because they fear the rise of civil society in the country. They want us to leave before their brand collapses.
The real women’s rights acquired in Afghanistan were because we toppled the Taliban in 2001 and because for 18 years women have struggled to make advances. A new Taliban state would destroy these rights despite any agreement signed.
Preparing to withdraw our forces if we receive guarantees from the Taliban about a ceasefire and rejecting terrorism is a weak approach which will cost us dearly in the future. We must withdraw and we should have been out by now, but eight years of Obama pandering to the Brotherhood and to Iran have had a toll on Afghan recovery from the Taliban. That’s the reason we are now where we were in 2006.
It’s not the content of the peace agreement, it is with whom. First we have a solid agreement among Afghans, then we back civil society and isolate the Taliban, then we empower the new Afghanistan backed by regional forces. Only at that time we can withdraw based on an agreement with Afghanistan not with the Caliphate.
Even Pakistan will suffer severe consequences if we bring the Taliban back to power in Kabul. Next they will destabilize Pakistan. The latter should move on their jihadists while Afghanistan should isolate them inside its own borders.
The Trump Administration should freeze the current track but not eliminate it. It should assemble a strategic task force to revise its strategies in Afghanistan, engage its anti-terror allies in the region, then proceed with a new plan. I am ready to help.
In the end, we all want US troops back home from Afghanistan and anywhere else. That’s a no brainer. But the question is how and under which circumstances. We haven’t brought our troops back from the DMZ in Korea because there are strategic reasons. We could have had our troops back from Afghanistan had we applied the right plan.
Dr Walid Phares was a -foreign policy advisor to Donald Trump in 2016 and a -national security advisor to Mitt -Romney in 2011-2012. He is a co-Secretary General for the Transatlantic Parliamentary Group TAG and a Washington DC based author on geopolitics