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A War Without Winners Winds Down

The deal the Trump administration signed with the Taliban on Saturday is a ticket out of Afghanistan for American troops who’ve been there far too long. It is a quiet end to a conflict that began with vibrant clarity, if not strategic vision, and descended into bloody ambiguity.

The Afghan government was not involved in the negotiations, there’s no formal cease-fire and the agreement is only a step toward opening negotiations between the Taliban and other Afghans on a power-sharing agreement, a long shot at best.

Afghanistan will take its place in American history alongside Vietnam as a symbol of endless conflict and futile foreign entanglements. Different as the conflicts were, the echoes of Vietnam are clear — President Richard Nixon struck a deal with North Vietnam in January 1973 to pull American troops out of a prolonged, needless and very costly war.

That is not to say either deal was wrong. On the contrary, recognizing when a fight has become useless is the right thing to do. Americans have long run out of good reasons to continue dying and killing in a land whose many tribes make it notoriously difficult to govern and whose mountainous terrain renders it all but impossible to conquer. American soldiers deploying to the country as recently as last night had trouble articulating what their mission there was, short of making it home in one piece.

President Trump has made no secret of his aversion to foreign military entanglements, and he pledged to get the troops out. It’s an election year, but the politics of the moment should not obscure the fact that ending American involvement in the war is the right thing to do. And, unlike the precipitous withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria, this pullout catches no one by surprise. By November, the number of American troops remaining in Afghanistan should be well down from the current 12,000 or so, and the Taliban will most likely still be abiding by the deal to make sure the staged withdrawal continues until all the foreign troops are gone.

Though not involved in the talks, the Afghan government has been aware of the negotiations, and, under the agreement, the Americans will continue funding and supporting the Afghan military. That the military is in shambles after 18 years of American tutelage, and that the government of Afghanistan is deeply corrupt and bitterly contested since a disputed election, only underscore that brute military force by an outside power is helpless against deep-seated ethnic and ideological divisions. And propping up an Afghan government was not the reason the United States went to war there.

The reason was the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the pressure to go after those responsible for so horrific an outrage. Afghanistan, much of it controlled by the staunchly Islamist Taliban, had provided sanctuary for Osama bin Laden, and so that is where American troops headed to wage President George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” — and to seek retribution.

But the mission soon became fuzzy. By the time Bin Laden was hunted down in May 2011 — in Pakistan, and not in the Tora Bora caves of Afghanistan where Al Qaeda and Taliban had their strongholds — Al Qaeda was already a much weaker force, and the Taliban had been long driven from power. But American and allied forces remained.

The full futility of that effort was revealed in documents obtained by the Washington Post late last year from an investigation by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. They showed how for years, even as American government officials were claiming successes in building democratic government in Afghanistan, the military and civilian officials on the ground acknowledged the obvious — that it was an extraordinarily expensive — roughly $2 trillion over 18 years — and pointless exercise. Their unvarnished pronouncements, withheld from the public, were devastating: “I have no visibility into who the bad guys are,” wrote Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense when the war began, in 2003. Twelve years and many billions of dollars later, General Douglas Lute, an Army general who served in the Bush and Obama administrations, told the inspector general, “We didn’t know what we were doing.”

Those revelations only confirmed what any honest assessment of the conflict had long ago concluded: American victory was never an option.

The new agreement offers no guarantee that the Taliban will not return to power, and the immediate reaction from the group was to declare victory. The major achievement for the United States was assurances that the Taliban would not give sanctuary to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. A joint U.S.-Taliban monitoring body in Qatar will be charged with monitoring compliance with the agreement, and Mark Esper, the secretary of defense, who was with Afghan officials in Kabul while the withdrawal agreement was being signed in Doha, Qatar, in the presence of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, emphasized that “the United States would not hesitate to nullify the agreement.”

But it is really for the Afghans to find ways of living in peace. It is in the next round of negotiations that the Taliban, other Afghan groups and the government will be called on to find ways of sharing power and to prevent a return to the fundamentalist Taliban rule that, among other things, banned girls and women from attending school or participating in public life. That is also where Afghans are to find ways to replace the “reduction in violence” called for in the agreement for a full cease-fire.

It would be good to believe that the tens of thousands of Americans who served in Afghanistan, and the more than 3,500 American and allied troops who laid down their lives there, and the untold thousands of Afghans killed in the war, did accomplish something positive in the end. That may be too much to hope, and there will be those who will denounce the Doha agreement as an election-year ploy and a sellout to the Taliban.

But with so little to show after all these years, it is hard to see what wiser path America could follow. “Everyone will agree that it is more honorable to end the fighting than to continue a conflict that has brought so much suffering,” this page wrote in 1973 of the Vietnam War agreement. “In that sense it is a ‘right kind of peace,’ deserving support in the hope that its calculated ambiguities can be transformed in time into the reality of an enduring settlement.”

Source: NY times

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