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A Reader’s Response To My “The U.S. – Taliban Deal Will Prove To Be A Disaster”

By A Former Student

I don't doubt the accuracy of your forecast. But if I can be so bold: What is to be done? What prescription follows from it?

The American brand of counterinsurgency is armed nation building and political development; but you once noted ("Self-Objects..." 1984) that political development was so difficult and rare that it was replaced in the social science lexicon by political stability.  Successful American counterinsurgency and political development requires an awful lot of people, an awful lot of money, over an awful long time - all three in quantities that the American polity is unwilling to sustain and provide with respect to Afghanistan.  

Once more, your prediction will prove correct: Afghanistan, with its per capita GDP of $2000 and literacy rate of 43%, is not going to be a modern entity anytime soon.  Instead, power will be distributed and contested among local strongmen, and a "Great Game" will be played there between India and Pakistan (and maybe others).  But simply put: In terms of the US national interest, is stability worth the price? 

I suspect one could be hard headed and note that in Afghanistan the US currently sustains a relatively small number of casualties, and from a military whose members choose to join it rather than being compelled into doing so by a draft.  And perhaps comparatively cheap air power and the like could be used to back the current regime, much as US air power saved the South Vietnamese regime in 1972.  That is a tough case to make, though. 

I suppose the question might be: What is the least bad option?



Marvin Zonis Responds.


You have it right. The options are all bad. The U.S. has no good choices in Afghanistan. Staying and leaving present formidable negative consequences. No policy appears vastly superior to any other.

24 Americans died in Afghanistan in 2019. Were their lives worth sacrificing to support the corrupt Afghan government?

It is estimated that the U.S. spent more than two trillion dollars on Afghanistan from 2001, when the U.S. invaded, until the end of 2019. Is all that money just a “sunk cost” that should be written off or an investment that should be protected?

These sorts of questions get to the nub of the problem. My former student is right – there are no good options  -- all bad.

Furthermore, I assume that another of my former students, U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, got the very best deal he could get from the Taliban.

So where do I come out?

I am in favor of a policy of the U.S. remaining in Afghanistan but switching U.S. policy away from the unswerving support of the central government in Kabul to strengthening tribal leaders.

U.S. advisers should remain and foreign aid should be channelled through the tribes to build schools and other infrastructure where possible.

The country has never had a strong central government and this current government is so riven with fissures that as I write this, two different presidential inaugurations are being held simultaneously.

The U.S. troops should remain off the front lines to minimize casualties. New pressures should be brought against Pakistan to reduce its support for the Haqqani network.

“Hanging in” Is the least bad alternative to me because progress is being made – slow but sure. Despite the corruption (Afghanistan is ranked 175th out of 183 countries by Transparency International); and the opium production (The country produced almost the entirety of the world’s heroin output in 2019.); and the success of the Taliban (The government controls some 54% of all Afghan districts while the Taliban control some 12% with the remainder contested.).

Given what we have done to the country and its people over our 19 years of war (some 111,000 Afghans are estimated to have been killed), I believe we owe it to the Afghan people to continue to work to create a society and political system that remains true to historical Afghan values and customs. I would characterize those as decentralization, tribalism, diversity of languages and cultural values, both Sunnis and Shiites, with no powerful or intrusive central government (whether that government is the current U.S. backed regime or Taliban rule.)

In short, I do not advocate continuing U.S. past policies but rather a new approach oriented to restore a traditional Afghan society. The goal of making the country over in the image of the U.S. has utterly failed and is unlikely to work in the future, no matter what the U.S. does.

President Trump has decided the effort is not worth the candle. The “Fig Leaf” of a deal that he has accepted will let him declare victory and go home – a policy advocated by the late Senator George Aiken of Vermont to deal with the Vietnam debacle.

Despite the Taliban’s near certainty of violating the deal (see the article below), the President’s decision to accept it will get the U.S. out of a mess and bolster his own reelection chances.

It is not my “least bad” alternative, but it is not a stupid alternative.



From the New York Times:

Taliban Ramp Up Attacks on Afghans After Trump Says ‘No Violence’

By Najim Rahim and Mujib Mashal

Deadly assaults against Afghan forces have increased since the U.S. and Taliban signed a deal to end their war. Afghans worry about the ambiguity of the Taliban’s promises.

Taliban militants and villagers in the Alingar district of Laghman Province during a gathering on Monday to celebrate a deal between the insurgents and the United States.Noorullah Shirzada/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban have resumed attacks against Afghan forces soon after signing a deal to end their war with the U.S. military, raising concerns that the Americans are leaving their Afghan allies vulnerable to an insurgency unwilling to let go of violence as its main leverage.

The Taliban have carried out at least 76 attacks across 24 Afghan provinces since Saturday, when they finalized an agreement for a troop withdrawal by the United States, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s national security council said. And on Wednesday, the United States conducted its first airstrike against the insurgents after an 11-day lull.

A senior Afghan security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Afghan forces had still not resumed their offensive special operations, but were remaining on active defense — only targeting Taliban units that were advancing on their outposts.

The deadliest of the dozens of assaults so far were on the outskirts of Kunduz in the north in the early hours of Wednesday. The Taliban’s elite Red Unit stormed Afghan Army outposts there from several directions, killing at least 15 Afghan soldiers, according to Lt. Col. Mashuq Kohistani, the commander of the Afghan Army battalion in the area.

“We were newly establishing the base, and our soldiers did not have proper trenches to protect themselves,” Colonel Kohistani said. “The Taliban killed 15 soldiers, one was wounded, and just two soldiers could escape alive.”

Colonel Kohistani said he had arrived at the scene to pick up the bodies in the morning, and had found that many of the soldiers had been shot in the head, most likely by sniper fire.

The Kunduz attack came just hours after President Trump spoke on the phone with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s deputy leader, who negotiated and signed the agreement with the Americans.

“We’ve agreed there’s no violence. We don’t want violence,” Mr. Trump said after the call. “We’ll see what happens.”

Afghan officials have long been concerned that, without some sort of binding cease-fire, the United States’ eagerness to leave Afghanistan might make them vulnerable in future talks with the Taliban.

The wording of the U.S. deal leaves that topic to planned-for direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, with few assurances that the insurgency will negotiate in good faith.

“The fact that the Taliban now have an agreement with the United States, there is no reason left for the Taliban to continue their violence — their own self-proclaimed so-called legitimacy is also gone,” Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s national security adviser, said in an interview with PBS.

As a confidence-building measure, the United States conditioned the finalizing of the deal on a week of reduced violence in the days leading up to the signing. The violence levels dropped to the lowest in years. American officials gave the impression that such a reduction would continue after the signing.

But the insurgents said this week that with the seven-day period over, their operations would continue against Afghan forces.

With so much ambiguity, only the United States seems to know what level of violence it agreed to as acceptable before direct talks can begin between the Afghan government and the Taliban. A joint U.S.-Taliban monitoring cell has been set up in Doha, Qatar, to assess progress on their commitments.

“The United States has been very clear about our expectations — the violence must remain low,” Gen. Austin S. Miller, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said in a Twitter message posted by his spokesman.

General Miller provided no details on what “low” means. However, on a visit with Afghan forces on Tuesday, he reiterated that the United States would continue to send air support when Afghan forces under attack need it. “We will continue to defend the Afghan security forces,” he said, as quoted by the Afghan channel ToloNews.

That became apparent on Wednesday, when the U.S. military said it had carried out its first airstrike against the Taliban in 11 days, after the insurgents attacked Afghan forces in the Nahr-e-Saraj District of Helmand Province. The military said the Taliban had carried out 43 attacks in the province the day before.

“Taliban leadership promised the international community they would reduce violence and not increase attacks,” Col. Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for the U.S. military command in Afghanistan, said in a statement. “We call on the Taliban to stop needless attacks and uphold their commitments. As we have demonstrated, we will defend our partners when required.”

A tally by The New York Times of attacks across the country showed that at least 66 people, including seven civilians, had been killed since Saturday. In the same period, Afghan forces killed about 20 Taliban fighters a day in fending off their attacks, a senior Afghan official said. Those numbers could not be independently verified.

The four-day toll after the signing of the agreement is nearly double that of the entire week of the “reduction in violence” that preceded the period.

Nadir Naim, a member of the Afghan high peace council, said there was a fear of the “repeat of the Soviet withdrawal aftermath,” when guerrilla forces continued to attack the Afghan government after Soviet soldiers began withdrawing, driving the country into a bloody anarchy.

“The unpredictability of Afghanistan’s future is a cause of great concern right now,” Mr. Naim said.

Najim Rahim reported from Kabul, and Mujib Mashal from Doha, Qatar.

Posted March 6, 2020 at: