Leonard Hennessy is a retired U.S. Navy Commander who flew electronic warfare missions in EA-6B Prowler aircraft over Iraq and former Yugoslavia. From 2012 to 2015, he served as a military adviser at the U.S. State Department developing U.S. policy for Conventional Arms Control in Europe.
It’s impossible to see the images out of Afghanistan from this past week and not be appalled. It’s an enormous crisis on multiple levels and has justifiably drawn criticism from all directions. Any assessments regarding either former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s ability to retain power or the Taliban’s capability to take it were either woefully inaccurate or simply ignored.
Before I continue, full disclosure: I’ve never been to Afghanistan, and I’m not an expert on the Taliban. But it’s important to understand just how much of an impact diplomacy might have on the unfolding of real-world events. Let’s consider this in the context of what we are now seeing.
In February of 2020, the Trump Administration started talks with the Taliban which ultimately led to a deal where the U.S. would (in theory) incrementally reduce then withdraw all its troops. This deal included the release of 5,000 captured Taliban combatants by the Afghan government.
Unfortunately, the U.S. failed to invite one key participant to these talks: the government of Afghanistan. Those 5,000 combatants were prisoners of Afghanistan, not the U.S., and Ghani was unwilling to agree to a deal he didn’t negotiate without having so much as a ceasefire agreement from the Taliban. (The Taliban did agree to a ceasefire but immediately broke it.)
At the same time, Ghani criticized the deal as giving away too much to the Taliban while abandoning stability measures that had enabled his government to maintain power. Although the Taliban claimed it would not allow Al Qaeda to reestablish itself in Afghanistan, the level of violence against U.S. and Allied forces did not decline, even while the peace negotiations were occurring. And while the Trump Administration initially considered getting Taliban and Afghan representatives in the same room to negotiate peace, that never materialized.
So basically in 2020, the U.S. negotiated a drawdown directly with the Taliban (a belligerent force with no legal claim to rule in Afghanistan) while sidestepping involvement with the duly elected government of that country!
This legitimized the Taliban while delegitimizing the Afghan government.
And yes, I believe that’s exactly how the Afghanis would see it: “The U.S. doesn’t think enough of us to include us in the conversation with the Taliban.” On the flip side, the Taliban probably came away from those 2020 negotiations feeling empowered to ignore the legitimacy of the Afghan government. After all, the U.S. was talking only with them.
To make matters worse, simply initiating those negotiations may have weakened the Afghan military’s morale: i.e., “The United States respects the Taliban, but what about us? They don’t have our backs anymore.” (To be clear, there are multiple reasons why the Afghan army deserted last week. But imagine the Revolutionary War if the French and British had agreed to a peace treaty without us.)
In terms of promises the Taliban have made on human rights (fair treatment for Afghanis who worked with the U.S. military, women’s rights, etc.), the events of the past few days have clearly shown their promises don’t hold water. But not inviting the Afghanis to the 2020 peace negotiations helped set the stage for the drawdown to go badly. It doesn’t even matter what was to have been discussed: talking only to the Taliban seriously hampered the drawdown from a foreign relations perspective.
And that withdrawal has been deadly.
In closing, I’ll note that most of all, Osama bin Laden wanted to see the U.S. collapse by descending into chaos and infighting. As Americans, we’ve got to stop letting our personal politics get in the way. No matter how you voted last November or what plans either the Trump or Biden Administrations may have had about the future of U.S. involvement there, the Taliban now hold Afghanistan.
And they’re about to show the world what they’re all about.