On Oct. 19, 1972, a subdued Henry Kissinger walked up to the White House podium to announce history. After fits and starts, more than three grueling years of diplomatic haggling, and a whole lot of violence on the ground, an accord between the United States and the Vietcong was within reach. “We believe peace is at hand,” Kissinger told the assembled reporters in the White House briefing room. “It is inevitable that in a war of such complexity that there should be occasional difficulties in reaching a final solution. But we believe that by far the longest part of the road has been traversed and what stands in the way of an agreement now are issues that are relatively less important than those that have already been settled.”
In turned out that Kissinger jumped the gun. A few more months of combat and a decision by then-President Richard Nixon to increase the bombing were required before a final agreement was signed in January 1973. In March, the last U.S. combat troops would leave Vietnam after eight years of voracious fighting in the jungles and tens of thousands of fatalities.
We may be at a similar moment in Afghanistan today. After 16 consecutive days of bare-knuckled diplomacy with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, U.S. Special Representative and former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad announced a preliminary draft agreement on two of the most critical issues in the peace talks: a U.S. withdrawal from the country and Taliban assurances that terrorists won’t be able to use Afghan soil to launch attacks against Americans. “The conditions for peace have improved,” Khalilzad tweeted.
“It’s clear all sides want to end the war. Despite ups and downs, we kept things on track and made real strides.”
Is peace in Afghanistan at hand? For the Americans, it may well be. But for the Afghans, the war is likely to continue regardless of what deal is signed or what preliminary arrangements are made.
My skepticism is not at all based on Khalilzad’s abilities as a negotiator. President Trump couldn’t have picked a better person for a thankless job. In addition to Khalilzad being an Afghan himself, he has worked on these issues since the Reagan administration. When the Taliban was ousted from power in the winter of 2001, Khalilzad was on the ground trying to manage the post-conflict environment. He served as Washington’s top diplomat in Kabul from 2003-2005, knocking heads with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and dealing with the big personalities (a nice way of saying “warlords”) in that country.
But even top-notch negotiators may not have the juice and fortitude to get warring parties to implement the promises they’ve made. Afghanistan is a place of failed occupations, conquests gone bad, and agreements burned to the ground. It’s a nation where good intentions turn into questionable naivete very, very fast. While it’s tempting to take the latest news from Doha with excitement (talks, after all, have never gotten this far since the war began more than 17 years ago), we need to be grounded when reports of breakthroughs begin percolating in the newspapers.
For one, the Taliban and the Afghan government have yet to engage one another directly. Taliban officials appear totally resistant to talking with an administration they consider created, cajoled, and bankrolled by Western powers. Kabul is not at all thrilled with the Taliban’s position, nor is President Ashraf Ghani happy with the fact that his government is portrayed as a bystander to the process. If the Talibans refuse to talk with Ghani or the U.S. is unable to convince the Afghan president to water down and broaden his delegation in order to meet the insurgents halfway, the entire diplomatic process could fall apart.
And then there is the war. The fighting on the ground hasn’t stopped. Hundreds of Afghan civilians, soldiers, militants, and pro-government militia fighters continue to die every week. Earlier this week, Taliban fighters destroyed an entire Afghan army company in Badghis province, killing 20 and capturing another 20. While it may be true that everyone in Afghanistan is sick and tired of the killing (the Afghan people certainly are), the Taliban isn’t exactly in a weak negotiating position at the moment. If push comes to shove, they can afford to wait. As the old saying goes, the Americans have the watches but the Taliban have the time.
All of this backroom wheeling and dealing doesn’t mean much to the American people. About 61 percent of Americans and 69 percent of veterans would support a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan without a peace agreement if Trump actually made the decision. Who could blame them? Tens of thousands of casualties and nearly $1 trillion allocated over a 17-year timespan will turn the most optimistic, starry-eyed, can-do American into a realist. For the United States, the war in Afghanistan has long outlived its usefulness. They didn’t sign up to be the Afghan state’s permanent military protectors, but rather to annihilate Osama Bin Laden’s al Qaeda network — an objective that Washington achieved within the opening months of the war.
Afghanistan’s civil (and proxy) war will likely continue with or without American soldiers on Afghan soil and American pilots in Afghan airspace. While we can all hope for the best, we should all expect the worst.