22 June 2019

Assessing the Trump team’s Afghanistan peace plan

Michael Rubin

The Trump administration’s Afghanistan strategy repeats mistakes made by the Clinton and Obama administrations.

The Taliban repeatedly fail to keep diplomatic commitments.

Treating the Taliban as independent from Pakistani command-and-control will undercut the utility of any peace deal struck with the Taliban.

Diplomatic outreach and Taliban empowerment are directly proportional.

The Afghan perception of Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is colored heavily by a personal history about which many in Washington, DC are unaware.

Zalmay Khalilzad, President Trump’s special envoy for Afghanistan, continues to pursue a diplomatic settlement with the Taliban framed mostly around the idea that the United States will withdraw from Afghanistan and, in exchange, the Taliban will foreswear terrorism.

Khalilzad’s strategy will never work. Within the American political context, Khalilzad’s diplomatic agreement with the Taliban is meant to provide cover for President Donald Trump’s decision to withdrawal from Afghanistan and nothing more. Just as President Barack Obama became so committed to a nuclear bargain with Iran that he embraced a bad deal rather than consider no deal, the Taliban today recognizes that Trump and Khalilzad will make any concession so long as Trump can promise peace in our time. Khalilzad appears willing to undercut the elected and legitimate government in Kabul without first demanding the group demonstrate its popular support at the ballot box. This approach places too much faith in the false notion that the Taliban have changed while simultaneously empowering them.

There are three main reasons why Khalilzad’s strategy cannot work: First, Khalilzad breaks no new ground but rather resurrects a deal which the Clinton administration struck with the Taliban in 1998, after al-Qaeda terrorists attacked the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Second, without any international agreement with regard to a definition for terrorism, the Taliban can argue that it upholds its side of the bargain while allowing terrorism to continue apace. Lastly, Khalilzad treats Afghanistan policy as if it were in a vacuum, ignoring the role Pakistan plays in sponsoring and sustaining the Taliban.

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