Counterterrorism After a Peace Deal in Afghanistan
Francis X. Taylor
Even as violence in Afghanistan continues at a gruesome pace—Afghan civilians suffered more deaths and injuries in July than in any month over the last two years—talks between the United States and the Taliban also continue to make slow but steady progress. An August 1 report in the Washington Post suggests that an agreement may be in the works which includes a withdrawal of 5,000-6,000 U.S. troops in exchange for the Taliban cutting ties with Al-Qaeda, entering into a ceasefire, and participating in negotiations with the Afghan government.
While it’s difficult to know everything that is going on around the negotiating table or how close the parties are to a final accord, what we can say with reasonable certainty is that any deal at the end of the day will need to be verifiable. Signing an agreement without a clearly spelled out, enforceable mechanism that holds all sides to the terms would be as effective as signing a useless sheet of paper. This is particularly the case with the Taliban, a movement that has shown little interest in compromise and has never truly stopped dreaming of retaking Kabul by force.
Relying on the Taliban to faithfully implement their counterterrorism commitments is an approach swimming in naïveté. As a recent U.N. Security Council sanctions report makes clear, the 20-plus year Taliban-Al Qaeda runs deep.
The objective for policymakers back in Washington, therefore, is twofold: to finally withdraw thousands of U.S. troops from Afghanistan after 18 long, expensive years while at the same time ensuring the country does not revert to its previous state as a headquarters for transnational terrorism. As someone who has worked the counterterrorism file for most of my professional life, I can say with authority that ungoverned spaces are a terrorist group’s best friend.
Unfortunately, Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are highly unlikely to be fully controlled by their central governments. The terrain along the Afghan-Pakistan border is practically inhospitable, often consisting of an extremely complicated mosaic of multiple tribes and armed factions—many of which view their own national governments hundreds of miles away as corrupt and predatory interlopers. Notwithstanding Pakistan’s construction of a 1,600 mile-long wall along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the 20-something terrorist organizations that operate in the immediate region will continue to hunker down and expand when the opportunity presents itself. Just because a peace agreement with the Taliban is struck doesn’t mean these other groups will disarm or quietly go into the night. To expect anything different is to prize fantasy over reality.
So, as U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad seeks to hammer out the highly technical details of a U.S.-Taliban agreement—and as we all hope for his ultimate success—the Trump administration must have his eyes wide open to the challenges ahead. Any agreement, regardless of the terms and sequencing, must be underwritten with a strong monitoring and verification regime that is both supported and invested in by the South and Central Asian region as a whole.
The United States is not the only stakeholder in Afghanistan’s future, nor is it the only country that should be concerned about global terrorism. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis, hundreds of Iranians and Russians, and hundreds of Europeans have been killed and injured in terrorist attacks over the last decade. While many of these countries have opposing goals in Afghanistan and have tried to carve out their own spheres of influence, each shares an interest in protecting their own people from the scourge terrorism represents. Given their shared borders, Pakistan and Iran in particular are highly exposed to terrorist groups who reside in next-door Afghanistan; both have an incentive to ensure the capabilities of Al-Qaeda and ISIS are degraded or at the very least managed.
In sum, the terrorism problem in South Asia should not be exclusively handled by Washington. Security arrangements embedded in a deal with the Taliban should include regional stakeholders as main participants in the effort. After all, Afghanistan’s neighbors have just as much of an interest in combating transnational terrorists as the United States does.
The war in Afghanistan has gone on for such a long period of time that it conjures up images of military stalemate, strategic drift, and economic drain. Entering its 19th year this October, the conflict is the very definition of an endless morass. The deeply-held frustrations about this war among Americans of all political affiliations are palpable; with the Taliban holding as much territory as it ever had since its emirate collapsed, it’s difficult to parse out the good from the bad. You can’t blame the 59% of American adults and 58% of American veterans for believing the war wasn’t worth fighting to begin with.
But we are where we are. And at this point in time, we have arrived at an important inflection point: does the United States continue to pour more money and personnel in pursuit of an expensive stalemate? Or does Washington throw everything it has into getting an effective resolution that allows our troops to go back to their families; brings the international community, including Afghanistan’s neighbors, into the picture; and protects the American people at a far more efficient price?
The answer is obvious.