A Jabberwocky Peace in Afghanistan

Washington should push for a genuine political solution in the region, even if it complicates the American departure.

U.S. military advisers at an Afghan National Army base
U.S. military advisers at an Afghan National Army base (James Mackenzie / Reuters)

On Monday, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, announced a draft framework for a deal with the Taliban that could finally close the book on America’s longest war. As Khalilzad explained: “The Taliban have committed, to our satisfaction, to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals.”

Peace could be closer than at any time since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. For a decade after that, Washington essentially refused to negotiate with the insurgents. In 2010, the U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke proposed political reconciliation, but General David Petraeus brushed it off. “Richard, that’s a 15-second conversation. Yes, eventually. But no. Not now.” Even when talks tentatively began, they produced little fruit except for the trade, in 2014, of the American prisoner Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban captives held at Guantánamo Bay.

This time, however, the Taliban and the United States seem serious about reaching a deal. The Taliban tapped one of their key leaders—Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar—to head their team, suggesting they mean business. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump endorsed the talks on Twitter. “[Negotiations] are proceeding well in Afghanistan,” he wrote.

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.

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.”

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.

However, it’s still worthwhile for Washington to push for a genuine political solution in Afghanistan, even if it complicates the American departure. The United States has modest but real interests in Afghanistan, which include combatting terrorism and safeguarding the stability of neighboring Pakistan. America also has important humanitarian and moral values at stake, such as protecting the rights of Afghan women. These limited interests don’t justify the kind of vast American commitment we saw in 2010–2011, when Washington deployed 100,000 troops at a cost of more than $100 billion per year. But they do justify a serious effort to reach a workable peace.

In Vietnam, the tragedy was not the Jabberwocky agreement itself. The tragedy was that it took the United States so long to sign it. As Nixon and Kissinger knew, the campaign in Vietnam was doomed. Essentially the same terms could have been achieved in 1969—and perhaps in 1965. But Nixon fought on so that the fall of Vietnam would come after his reelection.

Afghanistan is different. The danger here is that the United States will sign a Jabberwocky peace when a better alternative is available. The Taliban are not the Vietcong. There is no North Vietnam single-mindedly committed to overthrowing its neighbor. The war in Afghanistan is stalemated, not lost. The Afghan government controls more than half the country, including the most populated areas. There are many different ways this story can end.

Preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a launchpad for terrorism will be much more likely if there’s a broader political settlement. Alternatively, if U.S. troops depart based merely on a Taliban anti-terror pledge, what’s to stop the insurgents from later reneging on their promise—either overtly or covertly? And if Afghanistan deteriorates further into conflict and instability, extremists may put down roots in Afghanistan even without the Taliban’s permission.

How exactly can Washington achieve a workable peace? It’s extraordinary to think that the United States spends more than a thousand times as much on its military as the Taliban does—and yet it’s the Taliban that has the leverage in negotiations. The reason is that the Taliban is focused on a single mission, whereas the United States has a wide variety of competing interests around the world. The insurgents’ main goal—the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers—is also something that the United States obviously seeks. The Taliban will not pay Washington for a withdrawal that will happen regardless any more than it will pay Washington for tomorrow’s sunrise.

Any broader peace deal must therefore reflect political and military realities and will be far from perfect. Washington and Kabul may need to make painful concessions, such as offering blanket amnesty for Taliban fighters who committed war crimes, or accepting de facto Taliban control of many Pashtun areas of the country.

The key to getting a substantive deal is to shape the Taliban’s expectations about the future. If the rebels think they’re on an easy path to victory, or that American forces are walking out the door, come what may, then they will just wait. Washington needs to make clear that in any no-deal scenario, even if most American soldiers eventually leave, Kabul will not be abandoned. Instead, Washington will provide Special Forces, training and advisory capabilities, and air power, together with a long-term package of military and economic aid, for example. This package is sustainable given that the Afghan War cost just 0.17 percent of U.S. GDP in 2016 and a future commitment would likely involve even fewer troops and lower costs. The Taliban may recognize that military victory would be a long and uncertain path—and that a peace process offers better prospects.

After nearly two decades of fighting in Afghanistan, victory seems unobtainable. But a meaningful peace agreement, even one that’s politically and ethically compromised, is still a worthwhile goal. By contrast, a deal to leave in return for a promise of good behavior is little more than nonsense poetry, a foreign policy of slithy toves that gyre and gimble in the wabe.