US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has announced that a strategic assessment of America's military involvement in Afghanistan is near completion. A rethink is certainly long overdue. Secretary of state Rex Tillerson has been criticised by senators over his perceived lack of a clear plan for the country. Reports have stated that a surge in the number of US troops deployed is expected, but then shortly afterwards that there might in fact be a decrease.
The post of American special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan – a role once sufficiently important to have been held by one of the country’s most experienced diplomats, the late Richard Holbrooke – is said to be scrapped. Others are stepping into the policy vacuum, with the founder of the security contractor Blackwater, Erik Prince, proposing the creation of a Douglas MacArthur-style viceroy role in Afghanistan, which would be a curious abnegation of authority for any Afghan president even to contemplate.
But according to the former CIA director David Petraeus – also an army general who commanded coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2010-11 – the government only has control of 60 per cent of the country in any case.
"We've been doing the same thing for a long time, said Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "and the Taliban has gained significant territory in the interim".
Actually, the United States –and Nato – have been trying lots of different things over the years, from Britain's blithe assumption in 2006 that its experience in Northern Ireland would allow its forces to pacify Helmand province "without a shot being fired" (within three years over 2,000 British personnel were hospitalised and 132 died); to the yo-yoing numbers of foreign troops, with the US alone stationing over 100,000 in the country at one point, currently down to just over 8,000.
And what exactly has been achieved in what, at 16 years, has been America’s longest war? According to one report, between 100,000 and 170,000 “excess” deaths can be attributed to the conflict between 2001 and 2013, with a total low estimate of 200,000 if security forces and combatants are included. Afghanistan is regularly cited as one of the most corrupt countries in the world – if not the most corrupt. Its vice president is under investigation for kidnapping and sexually assaulting a former provincial governor. Kabul has become so dangerous that it was estimated that in just one week in June, 650 people were killed or wounded in the capital.
Nato’s mission, which was “to enable the Afghan authorities to provide effective security across the country and ensure that it would never again be a safe haven for terrorists”, has clearly failed. With the Taliban controlling or contesting around 40 per cent of the country’s districts the authorities obviously cannot “provide effective security”; and with ISIL’s local affiliate not only launching attacks but also holding small amounts of territory, the country is indisputably once again a “safe haven for terrorists”.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, going after Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda was not only justifiable but necessary. Getting involved in Afghanistan’s civil war, which in one way or another has been going on since the 1970s, however, has proven to be an unmitigated disaster.
Was it even necessary? This is in no way to speak up for a group I regard as barbaric and brutal, but the Taliban’s last foreign minister, Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, claimed that they had merely “inherited” bin Laden from previous Afghan governments, and that they had major differences with him and his followers. In a 2011 interview, Muttawakil stated: “We condemned the attacks because the people targeted were defenceless civilians, women, children, Muslim and non-Muslim.”
A gathering of religious scholars convened by the Taliban concluded that bin Laden should be asked to leave the country, while CIA officers have confirmed that the Taliban made proposals to the US that bin Laden be put on trial, possibly under the auspices of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The Americans thought, however, that this was just a ploy – or, alternatively, they were bent on regime change as punishment.
Now, according to a senior administration official quoted by The Wall Street Journal, "it's a macro question as to whether the US, this administration, and this president are committed to staying. It doesn't work unless we are there for a long time, and if we don't have the appetite to be there a long time, we should just leave."
One can thoroughly understand the sentiment. But having intervened so decisively and for so long, America cannot wash its hands of a country it bears partial responsibility for breaking. Since the Taliban are not going away, and clearly have the support of a section of the local population (and, indeed, of the neighbouring Pakistani population, among which they can always find safe haven), I find it hard to disagree with the conclusion of Richard Olson, the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2015-2016.
He wrote earlier this year that there must be “a political settlement, a process through which the Afghan government and the Taliban would reconcile their differences in an agreement also acceptable to the international community.”
Other parties such as the OIC should be involved in overseeing such a process, but America cannot just walk away. As Mr Olson put it: “We have a president who believes in the art of a deal. We should negotiate a hard bargain with the Taliban.” I agree. It is to be hoped that secretaries Mattis and Tillerson do too. After 16 long years of death and destruction, it is the least that America can do.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia