There are no good U.S. policy options in Afghanistan.
That's especially clear after a letter from Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was made public this week by an Afghan news channel. Featuring four significant proposals to kick-start the stalled peace process, the missive has an unmissable alacrity. "I am making this clear to you so that you understand the urgency of my tone regarding the collective work outlined in this letter," Blinken concluded.
The urgency is driven in part by a May 1 U.S. troop withdrawal deadline. About 2,500 troops remain, along with forces from some NATO nations, which have been stalwart after the U.S. invoked the collective-defense mechanism known as Article 5 after the 9/11 attacks. U.S., NATO and Afghan forces initially routed the Taliban, which had allowed al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations to flourish. But despite two decades of sacrifice in blood and treasure, the Taliban staged a stunning comeback and is now poised to share power with the Afghan government, or even take full control of the country.
Blinken starkly assessed the situation by writing that "as our policy process continues in Washington, the United States has not ruled out any option. We are considering the full withdrawal of our forces by May 1, as we consider other options. Even with the continuation of financial assistance from the United States to your forces after an American military withdrawal, I am concerned that the security situation will worsen and that the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains."
Women and girls would bear the brunt of the tragedy of a full Taliban takeover, based on the Islamic extremists' cruel rule before the 2001 U.S. invasion. Accordingly, Ghani should give strong consideration to the concern and constructive steps outlined in Blinken's letter, including the secretary's quest to convene top envoys from the U.S., China, Russia, Pakistan, India and Iran to "discuss a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan."
The inclusion of Iran may rankle some Americans, given the enduring enmity between that country and the U.S. But buy-in from neighboring nations will be essential to a successful outcome.
Second, the U.S. will suggest plans "aimed at accelerating discussions on a negotiated settlement and cease-fire." Blinken wrote that the U.S. does not intend to "dictate terms to the parties," but wants both sides to "move urgently" on developing "future constitutional and governing arrangements" and provide a "road map to a new, inclusive government" and agree on a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire. (Late Monday, the Associated Press reported that Blinken had gone one step further and presented a draft peace proposal to each side.)
Concurrent to the convening of major and regional powers, Turkey will be asked to "host a senior-level meeting of both sides in the coming weeks to finalize a peace agreement." Such an accord has been stalled since the initial steps over a year ago. The delay is deadly, particularly as the Taliban presses its advantage by escalating attacks on Afghan troops and civilians.
As part of this effort, the U.S. has prepared a revised proposal for a "90-day Reduction-in-Violence" process in order to ward off a spring offensive by the Taliban that could claim even more lives. While Ghani did not directly comment, quotes from Afghan First Vice President Amrullah Saleh seemed to sum up the government's cool reception. "They make decisions on their troops, not on the people of Afghanistan," Saleh said.
But the people of Afghanistan's fate depends in part on U.S. troops, and there seems to be little political will to stay indefinitely. Instead, a national consensus has emerged to end "forever wars."
Blinken's letter is "fine, even bold, even creative, but its prospects are mediocre," Michael E. O'Hanlon, director of research and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution told an editorial writer in an e-mail exchange.
O'Hanlon, who specializes in U.S. national security policy, added that, "Ghani will be a bit more forthcoming now — but the Taliban won't reduce violence and any formula for power-sharing remains elusive to say the least." This may make Biden "begrudgingly" stay past May 1, O'Hanlon predicted.
That may indeed be the case. But this two-decade war has defied military solutions, and negotiations are necessary. Ghani's government is in a better position to talk now than it would be without U.S. troops. Afghanistan should hear and heed Blinken's urgency.