Issues & Insights
Taliban supreme commander Haibatullah Akhunzada

Why Is Trump Surrendering To The Taliban?

I&I Editorial

President Donald Trump might be the author of “The Art of the Deal,” but how can someone who knows so well that the Obama-Kerry agreement with terrorist Iran was a bad deal, and who understood the importance of annihilating ISIS (and who then did so) at the same time think the terrorist Taliban in Afghanistan will be restrained by a piece of paper backed up by no credible U.S. military pressure?

The administration has enlisted the diplomatic prowess of an admittedly impressive personage in Afghan-American former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (and, before that, to Afghanistan and to Iraq) Zalmay Khalizad, who held numerous foreign policy posts under Reagan and both Bushes.

But has there ever been a more impressive diplomat than Henry Kissinger? Yet the deal he negotiated with North Vietnam in 1973, for which he shared the Nobel Peace Prize, was followed two years later by the Communist North’s conquest of South Vietnam. As the disaster materialized, South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu justifiably declared: “The United States did not keep its word … The United States did not keep its promise to help us fight for freedom.”

The Vietnam Syndrome must stop. There is simply no way to negotiate successfully with an anti-democratic aggressor without military force hanging close over that aggressor’s head. And yet Trump has already announced that U.S. troops in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has been making territorial gains for years, will soon be reduced by more than a third, from 14,000 to 8,600. A deal would reportedly mean the withdrawal of most U.S. forces by November 2020.

It will soon be 18 years that our military has been in Afghanistan. Let’s scan the early history.

“In late 2001, the CIA led a campaign to topple the Taliban with the support of the Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s foe inside Afghanistan,” the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Riedel wrote in 2009, noting that, “the results were spectacular and came quickly. By early 2002 the Taliban were routed, al-Qaida was on the run and the two were retreating into Pakistan.”

For Americans dealing with the shock of 9/11 in the immediate months thereafter, the words “The End” scrolled up the screen. They remembered President George W. Bush just three days after the attacks declaring: “This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others; it will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing.”

The American people most certainly did not believe that meant making a deal nearly two decades later with the Taliban to allow it to return to power in Afghanistan, whatever any pact the terrorists sign may say to the contrary.

Bush had described to the nation the relationship between al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan, where some of the “thousands of these terrorists in more than 60 countries … are trained in the tactics of terror.” And the 43rd president pledged: “Our war on terror … will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” Anticipating the kind of criticism Riedel and other liberals leveled about the Iraq war sucking away resources needed in Afghanistan, Bush also cautioned that “Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen.”

Lengthy, of course, did not mean 18 years, and the Bush and Obama administrations cannot escape blame for the fact that we are still in Afghanistan today – and so is an active, ambitious Taliban, not the slightest bit moderated in its jihadist ideology. The U.S. mission is not accomplished.

There Is No Taliban ‘Glasnost’ Or ‘Perestroika’

The current leader of the Taliban, Haibatullah Akhunzada, has been described as “a Stone Age mullah”; he issued fatwas endorsing terrorist operations against U.S. personnel, and advised Mullah Omar, the now-deceased Taliban leader at the time of 9/11, who was the current leader’s junior. Significantly, Akhunzada, unlike others in the Taliban leadership, never fled Afghanistan during the U.S. invasion or later operations there.

He is by no measure some Taliban “Gorbachev.” And he is not someone with whom Trump can “do business.”

Furthermore, a dressed-up surrender to the Taliban, far from simply accepting some disagreeable, localized status quo, is a terrifying threat to the future of neighboring, nuclear-armed Pakistan, whose over 200 million people make it the world’s second most-populous Muslim country.

The Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan, the incarnation of the Taliban in Pakistan, are now resurgent in the mountainous Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan, after years of dormancy. They are obviously emboldened by the Akhunzada-led successes across the border. Less than a month ago, a local elected lawmaker in the province with a secular Pakistani party received an extortion letter from Taliban operatives, demanding “we pay them to help them in their activities … They warned us that if we failed to comply, they would unleash their suicide bombers and assassins.”

Another local lawmaker told Radio Liberty that the Pakistani “government is doing everything in its power to end terrorism, but it does not have Aladdin’s magic lamp to change things overnight.” And the mountains they know so well give the terrorists advantage.

It’s hard to imagine much that could be worse than jihadists like the Taliban back in control of Afghanistan, and in a position to destabilize the world’s only Islamic nuclear power next door.

The U.S. quashed the Taliban once; we can do it again, and this time swiftly follow through on keeping them out of power permanently. The alternative is to pretend they are not what they are – until another 9/11 reminds us otherwise.

— Written by Thomas McArdle

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  • I agree that the Taliban cannot be allowed to re-establish their former position as rulers of Afghanistan however I wonder what we can do besides just continue to punish them militarily as we have been doing for 18 long years. It’s the “swiftly follow through on keeping them out of power permanently” part that has me wondering. In other words, to quash them completely we need to try something else, we need new methods since we have been unsuccessful to date in eliminating them. Outside of a massive military campaign, what would that look like?

    • I think that’s a very good question. The choice always seems to be between:

      1) Massive military force (and this apparently always seems to require a lot of boots on the ground, which means U.S. casualties, POWs, etc., for which the American public’s tolerance is increasingly limited, to put it mildly. And understandably so).

      2) Nation building, which costs a fortune, takes forever, and may not even work.

      3) Doing nothing.

      (And we can add another option: appeasement, which is worse than doing nothing.)

      I think we should be guided by a principled realpolitik, not NeoCon utopianism and not non-assertiveness/isolation. If we identify the Taliban as an enemy, then we are as much at war with them today as we were in 2001, and we should have no moral qualms about destroying their ability to make war or form a regime. Instead of staying, and staying, and staying, we should, year after year, be watching and be fully willing to return and again use force if they seem poised to return to power. (And by “we” I mean the U.S. and our allies in both NATO and regionally.) The trouble with this, of course, is there is no bipartisan U.S. foreign policy anymore. No one believes an Obama or a Warren would go back in. Remember, not only did the Dems turn on George W. Bush as soon as they could on Iraq, using it as a campaign issue to get control of the House in the 2006 elections; Pelosi in her first go round as speaker was agitating to get out of AFGHANISTAN, which was supposed to be the good war from which Iraq was sucking away resources.

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