Dominic Tierney: A Jabberwocky peace in Afghanistan
That is the challenge of ending wars. Even in circumstances where the victor has completely destroyed the opposing military, bringing the conflict to a satisfactory end is a struggle. President Abraham Lincoln and his Civil War generals Ulysses S. Grant and even William Sherman intended a conciliatory policy toward the defeated Confederacy to lessen insurgent resistance. Generals George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley worried that German “wolf packs” would prevent peace after World War II, just as Iraqi insurgents prevented peace on American terms in Iraq.
Wars end when the vanquished accept the outcome. Which is what politicians mean when they say there is no military solution. In an official document, the State Department noted, “President Trump was clear that military power alone will not end the war.” The Pentagon, too, accepts the subordinate role of military force, saying in March 2018 that its aim was “to achieve a political reconciliation, not a military victory.”
The enemy, in other words, gets a vote. And that is leading the United States to compromise its political objectives.
Terms of the negotiation evidently include the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan within 18 months in exchange for commitment by the Taliban not to permit terrorist attacks to emanate from Afghanistan. But the Taliban were never really committed to the al-Qaeda objective of attacks on the “far enemy,” and they learned in these 17 years the cost of harboring groups that do attack. Giving that up to see the United States leave is, for them, a good deal—especially since a subsequent return to full power seems attainable. The incoming Centcom commander, Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, testified that Afghan government “losses are not going to be sustainable.”
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The United States is clearly indicating that it is willing to give up on what it was originally fighting to achieve: an Afghanistan not under the control of the Taliban’s repressive grasp. It will settle for no terrorist attacks on America launched from there, leaving Afghan forces that have suffered so much to achieve a better Afghanistan to grieve their losses, including the 45,000 Afghan National Security Forces that have been killed since 2014.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker argues that the United States should “negotiate something that at least looks like a political agreement rather than an all-out surrender.” But why would the Taliban settle for anything less than all-out surrender? It controls or is contesting half the geographic districts of the country. Seven parliamentary candidates have been killed, two kidnapped, and elections have had to be postponed for three years because of violence. More than 100 countries are contributing to the mission in Afghanistan; all but Pakistan are likely to withdraw if the United States does.