PHILADELPHIA — Is the White House so eager to quit Afghanistan that it will hand 35 million Afghans over to the Taliban in rushed “peace” negotiations?
Hamdullah Mohib, the visibly angry Afghan national security adviser, raised this question with U.S. journalists and diplomats recently on a visit to Washington, earning sharp State Department pushback.
Yet it is a question that must be asked, as special U.S. representative Zalmay Khalilzad negotiates a timeline for U.S troop withdrawal directly with Taliban leaders at talks in Qatar. No Afghan officials are present — because the Taliban refuses to talk to them. The talks, Mohib said, were “increasing the legitimacy of the Taliban” and “decreasing the legitimacy of the Afghan government.”
What makes matters worse, Mohib charged, is that Khalilzad and other U.S. diplomats aren’t fully briefing Afghan leaders, leaving them in the dark about what is really going on in negotiations. Mohib says this is creating fear and uncertainty among the Afghan public. It is also undermining morale within the Afghan army.
“We are completely being ignored,” Mohib told me in an interview. “This is a frustration that had to come out.”
The Afghan government recognizes that after 17 years of war, many Americans wonder why U.S. troops remain there, and may sympathize with President Donald Trump, who told ABC last month, “We got to get out of these endless wars and bring our folks back home.”
What the president does not say is that the United States has a long-term interest in Afghanistan’s future. That interest does not just involve obtaining a promise from Taliban leaders to bar terrorist bases — the apparent quid pro quo for Washington’s providing them a withdrawal timeline.
If a “peace” accord opens the door to a Taliban takeover (returning women to the burqa and virtual imprisonment), America’s 17-year venture will go down in history as Trump’s failure. And, if the Taliban takes over, why should anyone believe its guarantee that the country will never again play host to terrorists? More likely, with more than half the Afghan population opposed to the Taliban, the country would soon revert to all-out civil warfare and chaos, in which terrorists thrive.
So the issue is not so much the talks themselves, but how they are being conducted. Khalilzad claims that the Taliban must eventually agree to a cease-fire and negotiate with the Kabul government as part of any deal. But the Taliban has shown no signs it is willing.
Instead, negotiations have focused on the U.S. withdrawal timeline — and Taliban “guarantees” to block terrorists.
Yet Trump’s public eagerness to withdraw troops signals to Taliban leaders that they are in the driver’s seat. Ditto for his sudden decision last year to pull almost all U.S. troops out of Syria, and half the 14,000 U.S. troops out of Afghanistan — announced without first informing our Syrian Kurdish allies, or our Afghan government allies in Kabul.
No wonder the Kabul government is worried about an American sellout. All the more so when the Taliban is backed by Pakistan, whose intelligence service hosts its leaders and flies them to negotiating sessions. The Pakistanis hope to see their Taliban ally return to political dominance in Kabul as a hedge against India.
Clued in by the Taliban, Pakistani officials appear to know more about what is going on in the talks than do Afghan government leaders. This feeds the bitterness toward Khalilzad displayed by Afghan officials.
“By signaling the desire to withdraw, you strengthen the resolve of the enemy and undermine your ally,” says the Hudson Institute’s Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington who is very familiar with the Afghan issue. He believes the negotiations should first have focused on a cease-fire and reconciliation among Afghans, including the Taliban. Then would come the withdrawal schedule.
To do the reverse, says Haqqani, “makes the Taliban feel all they’re discussing is how to ensure an orderly U.S. withdrawal. The Afghan government genuinely perceives that the U.S. priority is how to withdraw quickly rather than maintain the gains of the last 18 years.”
And maintaining those gains may require a small but long-running U.S. presence to ensure that Pakistan, and any Taliban party that joins the Afghan government, understand that America retains interest.
No one denies the smarts of the Afghan-born Khalilzad, who previously served as ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq (although Mohib alleged conflicts of interest).
But the lack of transparency about U.S.-Taliban talks, keeping Kabul, and Americans, in the dark, raises serious questions about whether they are merely meant as a cover story for a hasty U.S. pullout. Like the 1970s peace negotiations with Vietnam before America ran for the exits.
The only way to calm those fears is for Khalilzad to be more forthcoming — to Americans and to Kabul.
“It is not for us to prescribe American national interests,” says Mohib, who is the kind of young, educated Afghan vital for the country’s future. “What we don’t accept is to be thrown under the bus.”
Rubin is a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.