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How America Should Deal With the Taliban

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As the United States ends its mission in Afghanistan, U.S. policymakers have already begun to reckon with American military failures over 20 years of fighting. But the war’s disastrous finale was not solely the result of armed conflict. In cataloging its mistakes, Washington must also seriously evaluate its diplomatic efforts—especially peace talks with the Taliban led by U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad.

Both President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden made clear their desire to end U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. But the negotiations, which were largely held on Taliban terms, were neither necessary nor desirable—in fact, the eventual deal struck in Doha likely hastened the Taliban’s victory. If Biden wishes history to judge his withdrawal from Afghanistan as an acceptable foreign policy decision, his administration must reckon with this diplomatic failure and begin to take a tougher and more realistic approach toward the Taliban. Doing so is the only way to prevent the reemergence of a global terrorist hotbed.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s desperation to conclude a deal will make this process more difficult. Three years of negotiations empowered Taliban hard-liners, many of whom now play central roles in the new interim government—including al Qaeda–linked Haqqani network leader Sirajuddin Haqqani. As they craft a post-withdrawal strategy, U.S. officials must therefore change their diplomatic tack—judging the Taliban by their actions before granting them international recognition or economic assistance. This approach, coupled with a new counterterrorism strategy, is the best way to protect vital U.S. interests in the years to come.

Although the United States spent years locked in negotiations with the Taliban, Washington’s approach to those talks was often defined by wishful thinking. The so-called Afghanistan Papers—confidential documents published by The Washington Post in December 2019—showed that U.S. military leaders often provided rosy assessments of the military situation or told political leadership that the United States had “turned a corner” in the fight against the Taliban, even when facts showed otherwise. As deputy assistant to the president and National Security Council senior director for South and Central Asia from 2017 to 2021, I witnessed senior civilian officials ignoring or papering over facts that did not comport with their diplomatic agendas.

This predilection produced a number of serious negotiating errors that eventually came to define the resulting Doha agreement, the deal paving the way for a U.S. troop withdrawal in exchange for Taliban pledges to counter terrorism and refrain from attacking American soldiers on their way out. The first mistake—the result of a misguided belief that the Taliban would eventually agree to negotiate with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul—was the U.S. decision to exclude the Afghan government from talks, which prematurely conferred legitimacy on the Taliban.

The second error was failing to condition the pace of the talks on Taliban violence levels. Washington’s unwillingness to suspend negotiations, even amid escalating violence, revealed the United States’ desperation for a deal. In the end, the only requirement Washington imposed on the Taliban was to reduce violence for six days before signing the agreement.

The third error, based on wishful thinking that the Taliban were actually interested in negotiating a political settlement rather than fighting their way back to power, was forcing Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners without a commensurate concession from the Taliban, such as reducing violence.

Among the Taliban prisoners released was the Afghan army sergeant Qari Hekmatullah, who in 2012 murdered three Australian........

© Foreign Affairs

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