But what kind of deal is on the table, exactly? Will it be a meaningful effort to end the war in Afghanistan, or simply a fig leaf to facilitate an American exit? We’ve been here before.
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In January 1973, President Nixon announced an agreement with North Vietnam to end U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, which he described as “peace with honor.” The political scientist Larry Berman had a better description. He called it a “Jabberwocky agreement,” after the nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll, because of its essential absurdity. It wasn’t a peace deal at all, but a way for the United States to get out of Vietnam without conceding defeat. The agreement allowed North Vietnam to keep its troops in the south even after U.S. forces left. The fighting between the Vietnamese continued unabated. Hanoi’s military victory was just a matter of time. Two years later, in 1975, Communist tanks rolled into Saigon.
As would become clear, the White House’s major goal was to defer the collapse of South Vietnam until after the 1972 election. In the margins of a briefing book, National-Security Adviser Henry Kissinger wrote, “We need a decent interval.” In August 1972, Kissinger told Nixon, “We’ve got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two, after which—after a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater.” You can listen to audio of Kissinger’s words here.
The emerging deal in Afghanistan could be another Jabberwocky agreement. The crux, it seems, is a U.S. withdrawal of troops in exchange for a Taliban pledge not to support international terrorism. But there’s an ominous lack of clarity about the Taliban’s willingness to enter a substantive peace process with Kabul. Taliban insurgents consider the Afghan regime to be a puppet government. As the Times reported, “The Taliban official said he did not see the agreement as being dependent on a cease-fire or direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.”
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It’s certainly tempting for the United States to cut a narrow deal with the Taliban to allow the quickest possible exit. American soldiers have been stuck in the Afghan morass for 18 years—literally a lifetime for some U.S. soldiers. Trump wants out, and he recently ordered half of the 14,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan to be withdrawn (although this process may take much longer than people realize). And Trump is not alone. Opposition to “nation-building” in Afghanistan is one of the few things that unites the liberal left and the populist right. The American domestic mood is not so much anti-war as anti-thinking-about-the-war. Although there are no mass demonstrations on the Mall in Washington, D.C., many people wish this grim and inglorious mission would simply disappear.