Zalmay Khalilzad, a three-time U.S. Ambassador, is a man on a mission. And the mission — striking a peace agreement with the Taliban that will help facilitate an end to the conflict — could very well turn out to be mission impossible.
The veteran diplomat knows Afghanistan’s intractable, personalized politics like the back of his hand. He also deeply understands that the American people are exhausted with a war that has proceeded on a destructive and counterproductive autopilot for far too long.
Americans want the conflict to end. The Afghan people want peace. Afghanistan’s power brokers, including the Afghan government, the Taliban, the political opposition in Kabul, the traditional warlords and the jihadis all want political power for themselves. Khalilzad needs to take all of these challenges into account. The job often can feel like the diplomatic version of pounding a square peg into a round hole.
And yet the effort is absolutely necessary if Afghanistan is to escape the unending cycle of violence that has dominated the country for almost half a century.
All peace accords, however, are not created equal. Just as it would be ill-advised for the United States to cling to an ideal outcome, it also would be foolish for Washington to settle for an agreement that doesn’t meet the primary U.S. national security objective: ensuring Afghanistan never again poses a terrorist threat to the U.S. Khalilzad must be willing to walk away if Taliban officials are unwilling to meet America’s bottom line.
Any accord, therefore, should be based on three primary end-states.
First and foremost, the Taliban must unequivocally cut its two-decade-long relationship with Al-Qaida and offer verifiable security guarantees to the U.S. that Afghanistan will not revert to being a home for an alphabet soup of terrorist groups. This demand is not subject to negotiation.
According to Khalilzad himself, Taliban negotiators have expressed a willingness to accept this principle in a draft agreement.
But promising to do something and actually doing it are two entirely different things. There must be concrete and certifiable security assurances from the Taliban that provide confidence that Afghan soil will be an inhospitable space for terrorist groups.
What these assurances will eventually look like is up for negotiation. The modalities could require a residual NATO-led counterterrorism presence in Afghanistan after a U.S. troop drawdown or a U.N.-operated peacekeeping mission designed to monitor compliance with key tenets of a conflict-ending deal. Whatever form such assurances take, the U.S. must continue to vigilantly monitor Afghanistan in order to combat terrorist groups that seek to exploit the country for their own sinister purposes.
Secondly, Washington needs to stress to the Taliban that a peace accord will not be acceptable to the United States if Afghanistan’s constitutional form of government is not respected.
While it is not America’s responsibility to dictate to Afghans how to live their lives, Khalilzad should still make it clear to the Taliban that the U.S. expects all Afghans to be treated fairly under the rule of law regardless of ethnicity, gender, sect, tribe or region.
Finally, the U.S. negotiators must stress that Washington will remain involved in Afghanistan in pursuit of its own national security interests. While American military personnel will be withdrawn as part of a peace deal, the U.S. will continue to use its diplomatic, economic and political influence in Afghanistan to help the country reintegrate with its neighbors, boost the economic prospects of the Afghan people and limit the pool of possible recruits to terrorist groups, such as ISIS.
The Taliban might be amenable to this condition as it transitions from an insurgency into a legitimate political actor in the Afghan political system.
If the Taliban assumes that a U.S. military withdrawal means the total and complete withdrawal of the U.S. as a player in Afghanistan, the group will be sorely mistaken.
None of this will be easy. Talking, however, is the most efficient way for Afghanistan to begin the transformation into a semi-peaceful society after decades of warfare.
The war in Afghanistan is in a perpetual stalemate. Renewed focus on a rational peace effort that promotes these three strategic end-states will finally allow the U.S. to put this 18-year conflict in the rear view mirror.