An Afghan Balancing Act: Ending America’s Longest War vs. Guaranteeing Safety

August 30, 2019 by HJ Mai
Prepare the Gun Photo by Sgt. Jordan Trent 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team

The longest war in the history of the United States could soon come to an end after reports that the peace negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban have hit the final stretch. 

But concerns about the Taliban’s ability to guarantee safety and prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for terrorists could potentially compromise the ongoing peace talks.

Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s political representative in Qatar, said on Wednesday that both sides are in the process of finalizing the peace agreement during the ninth rounds of negotiations. 

“We have reached the last point of the agreement,” Shaheen told Al Jazeera. “The final point is the implementation and the mechanism of the deal which is being discussed.”

A peace deal would end America’s 18-year engagement in the country that began shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks. Under the expected terms of the agreement, the U.S. and other foreign forces would gradually withdraw from Afghanistan in exchange for the Taliban’s assurance that the country would not be used as a launchpad for future global terrorist attacks.

Senior U.S. military officials and President Donald Trump, however, have voiced their concerns about a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops.

“You have to keep a presence,” Trump said in a radio interview with Fox News on Thursday. “We are reducing that presence very substantially, [but] we are going to always have a presence.”

The president said he plans to reduce the number of U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan from about 14,000 to 8,600, and then “we’ll make a determination from there.” 

Thomas Barfield, professor of anthropology at Boston University and an Afghanistan expert, said the president’s comments could throw a wrench into the ongoing peace negotiations, which are led by U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad.

“I imagine [Trump’s] guys in Doha are now having a big problem,” Barfield told The Well News. Keeping U.S. troops in the country indefinitely is “the reverse of what the Taliban are demanding,” he said. “I could easily see them walking.” 

While Trump’s comments may have compromised the negotiations in Qatar, Barfield understands the president’s unwillingness to commit to a complete withdrawal, given the potential ramifications. 

“I don’t think the Taliban have the capacity” to guarantee that Afghanistan won’t harbor terrorist networks in the future, Barfield said. “They haven’t been able to get rid of parts of the Islamic State Khorasan that have shown up in eastern Afghanistan.”

The rise of the Islamic State terror group in Syria and Iraq following the withdrawal of U.S. troops is another cautionary tale that might prolong any Afghan peace negotiations and prevent a military drawdown. 

“[President] Obama was going to bring the troops [in Afghanistan] down to zero in 2014,” Barfield said. “It was just going to be an embassy guard that was his plan. But then when you saw what happened in Iraq and Syria, suddenly they backed off on that.”

The issue of whether the U.S. needs to keep a military presence in the region is also a politically charged topic, especially going into the 2020 presidential election. 

“If I was an American politician, particularly going into an election, I would ask myself: do I really want to announce that I’ve won a war and then six months down have to explain why I’m going back,” Barfield said. 

While the U.S. is keen on getting out of Afghanistan, history shows the potential dangers of a complete U.S. withdrawal are plentiful. An American presence in the region seems to be almost unavoidable. 

Without knowing the details of a potential peace agreement, it’s hard to speculate on the future of the U.S.-Afghan relationship, Barfied said. However, he went on to suggest that it will be the ongoing financial and military support  the U.S. and NATO give the Afghan government, rather than a set number troops on the ground, that will ensure its future stability.

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