by Edward Hunt
As the war in Afghanistan enters its seventeenth year, the Trump administration has begun looking for ways to make a deal with the Taliban, offering Taliban officials leadership positions in the Afghan government. In August, President Trump alluded to the possibility of a deal when he announced in a televised speech to the nation that “perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan.”
Since then, administration officials have repeatedly confirmed that they are looking to negotiate with the Taliban. When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Afghanistan last month, he said that the administration was looking for “moderate voices among the Taliban” who are willing to stop fighting the Afghan government.
“So we are looking to engage with those voices and have them engage in a reconciliation process leading to a peace process and their full involvement and participation in the government,” Tillerson said.
The administration’s search for a deal comes at the same time that it is escalating the war against the Taliban. Currently, the administration is sending more than 3,000 additional U.S. soldiers into Afghanistan, raising the total U.S. troop presence from 11,000 to 14,000.
The Trump administration is also providing U.S. military forces with more authority to go after the Taliban. Today, “we are no longer bound by the need for proximity to our forces,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis told the House Committee on Armed Services last month. “In other words, wherever we find the enemy, we can put the pressure from the air support on them.”
As part of the escalation, the administration is pushing Afghan military forces to launch their own offensive military operations against the Taliban. Administration officials say that it is necessary to wage a more aggressive military campaign to pressure the Taliban into negotiations.
Everything is “designed to bring the Taliban to the table,” Gen. John Nicholson, commander of coalition forces, explained earlier this month. “And so this is a fight-and-talk approach.”
The administration’s fight-and-talk approach represents a sharp shift for President Trump. The president, who has acknowledged that his “original instinct was to pull out,” has pledged not to send U.S. troops into wars that they will not win.
“I will never send our finest into battle unless necessary—and will only do so if we have a plan for victory,” Trump promised in his major foreign policy speech during his presidential campaign.
Rather than act on his promise, however, Trump has decided to keep the war going while the search for Taliban partners continues. Indeed, Trump is prolonging the stalemate with the Taliban, making it likely that the United States will remain involved in Afghanistan for years to come.
With the new strategy, “we’re prepared to invest the resources that will be, at a minimum, a stalemate but a stalemate increasingly in the government’s favor,” State Department official Alice Wells has explained.
What Reconciliation Means
Even if the Trump administration finds Taliban partners, reconciliation could make life much worse for the Afghan people. Although the Trump administration insists that it is looking for moderate voices, it has done little to challenge the warlords and extremists who already play an influential role in the Afghan government.
One of the more ominous signs is the Afghan government’s recent political agreement with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an extremist who has spent his entire adult life spreading terror and mayhem throughout the country. In May 2013, Hekmatyar’s forces orchestrated a suicide bombing in Kabul that resulted in the deaths of at least 16 people and six U.S. military advisers.
Last year, the Afghan government signed a peace agreement with Hekmatyar’s forces, despite the fact that Hekmatyar had been designated a “global terrorist” by the United States.In fact, officials in the Obama administration applauded the peace agreement, portraying it as a positive development. “This is a model for what might be possible,” Secretary of State John Kerry announced.
After the Trump administration entered office, Gen. Nicholson continued to praise the agreement as a model for reconciliation. The agreement “has the potential to serve as a catalyst for similar settlements with the Taliban or portions of them,” Nicholson insisted.
Nicholson made his point at the same time that 20,000 members of Hekmatyar’s forces were returning to Afghanistan, preparing to reintegrate into Afghan society. “So if this goes well, then this hopefully would be a catalyst for further reconciliation,” he repeated. “So that is the ultimate goal.”
Not everyone shares the same view. At Human Rights Watch, Patricia Grossman has criticized the agreement for impeding efforts to bring peace and justice to Afghanistan. For the families of victims, Grossman says, “Hekmatyar’s return brings no peace, and the continuing impunity it represents heralds no new beginning for Afghanistan.”
Certainly, reconciliation with extremists will do nothing to change an already notoriously criminal Afghan government. Since its creation after the overthrow of the Taliban in the final months of 2001, the Afghan government has come to include all sorts of gangsters and warlords.
“Mujahadin commanders and warlords continue to hold both appointed and elected positions and often put tribal and ethnic interests ahead of the nation’s,” U.S. diplomats in Afghanistan confirmed in an internal report in February 2008.
In the past decade, the situation has barely changed. Since the last presidential election, the country’s vice president has been Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of the country’s more notorious warlords. In May 2017, Dostum fled the country in order to avoid an investigation into charges that he ordered one of his political opponents to be raped and tortured.
Although officials in Washington remain well aware of the problems, they have still decided to send more U.S. forces into the country to pressure Taliban forces to follow the Hekmatyar model of reconciliation. Indeed, they are putting more lives at risk as part of a process that could create an even more reprehensible government that will only make life worse for the people of Afghanistan.
Officials in the Trump administration are well aware of what they are doing. When Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) recently questioned Secretary of Defense Mattis on the administration’s strategy, he confirmed the basic situation.
“Corruption is up,” Warren said. “There is no support for the government. And more and more people keep dying.” In spite of all this, Warren continued, “we keep hearing our generals come in here and tell us over and over, ‘Just give us one more military plan, and it is going to work.’” Ultimately, Warren said, “it is just hard to buy that. And it is hard to buy it on behalf of the people who put their lives at risk.”
In response, all that Mattis could muster was a brief acknowledgement. “Sure,” he said.
Edward Hunt writes about war and empire. He has a PhD in American Studies from the College of William & Mary. Photo: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (right)