Peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan will eventually take place, retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, a former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and so-called “War Czar,” because, after 18 years of military intervention from the U.S. and its allies in the region, war isn't the solution.
“This is not going to be won on the ground by military action,” he told FOX Business' Gerry Baker on “WSJ at Large.” “Ultimately, we will be at a table with the Taliban. And ultimately, the Taliban will be at a table with the Afghan government. This is only a question of time.”
In August 2017, President Trump announced what he termed a new South Asia strategy in a nationally-televised address. Many Afghan and U.S. observers interpreted the speech and the policies it promised, such as expanded targeting authorities for U.S. forces, greater pressure on Pakistan and a modest increase in the number of U.S. and international troops, as a sign of renewed U.S. commitment. However, after less than a year of continued military stalemate, the Trump Administration in July 2018 reportedly ordered the start of direct talks with the Taliban that did not include the Afghan government. This represented a dramatic reversal of U.S. policy, which had previously been to support an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” peace process.
Kabul is not directly involved in the ongoing U.S.-Taliban negotiations: the Taliban have long refused to negotiate with representatives of the Afghan government, which they characterize as a corrupt and illegitimate puppet of foreign powers. That refusal, along with continued Taliban attacks, have led some to call for the U.S. to suspend talks until the Taliban make concessions on one or both issues
In August 2019, after eight rounds of talks, the two sides reportedly neared an initial peace agreement that would see a withdrawal of four to five thousand U.S. troops from Afghanistan if the Taliban agree to a cease-fire and enter into direct negotiations with the Afghan government. However, with no cease-fire yet in place, the United States has increased airstrikes and raids targeting the Taliban as talks are ongoing, while the Taliban continues to carry out attacks on Afghan government targets.
Last weekend, President Trump said that he called off secret peace talks with the Taliban planned for the presidential retreat at Camp David following a suicide bombing in Kabul that killed an American soldier and 11 others. After that announcement on Twitter, the president told reporters the talks were “dead.”
But Lute, who was a top adviser to President George W. Bush on the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, said these sorts of negotiations are never easy.
“Large… complex diplomatic engagements like this seldom are a clear, linear progression of success built on success,” he said. “Much more typical is two steps forward, one step back. And maybe, over the course of the last week, we witnessed one of those one steps back. But this is worth pursuing.”
Many people — including members of the president’s party — have criticized the idea of negotiating with the Taliban, who harbored the al Qaida terrorists that masterminded the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, which killed thousands of Americans. But Lute feels we really have little choice; the Taliban, which controls 12 percent of Afghanistan's 407 districts, need to be part of any solution that gets U.S. forces out of that country, he said.
“I think what’s undeniable at the 18-year mark, though, is that the Afghan Taliban are a part of the Afghan body politic,” he said. “The question is, will they join in a power-sharing arrangement with the government that leads to stability or do they still aim for dominance?”