HomeOpinionGuest ColumnsAFGHANISTAN: Opinion: Retired Naval Officer Discusses The Art of Diplomacy

AFGHANISTAN: Opinion: Retired Naval Officer Discusses The Art of Diplomacy

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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. 

MORE: Opinion: Consequences and Contexts of Afghanistan are Not Unique to the United States

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. The procedure of the withdrawal was botched on Biden’s watch. Withdrawal itself was inevitable and should have been done by Trump in late 2020.

    In a nutshell, the Afgan people as a whole are a sorry lot of humans including the Af govt; Taliban; Af army; Af civilian population. They thrive on violence and war.

    • Doug, you may gain some insight on the Afgan people by watching the latest broadcast of “Lara Logan Has No Agenda” on Fox. Her in-depth interviews of Afgan vice president Amrullah Saleh and Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen are a powerful expose’ on the history and the struggles of Afghanistan. While the Taliban (based in Pakistan) and some Afgans are a loathful bunch of barbarians, the people of Afghanistan are not much different from those of any other nation. They laugh, they cry, they have a long history of survival under extreme conditions. They cherish their ancient traditions and love their families. Check it out, you may be glad you did.

  2. News flash Leonard, you completely forgot to mention the current fanatical administration so consumed with rage & hate for Trump that they summarily deep sixed, ( A little Navy Lingo For You ), every ” deal ” Trump, ever made & every precept that he ever operated under the second they assumed the Office.
    Nothing to prohibit Biden from doing it his way .
    Does Iran Deal ring a bell ?
    So fanatical in their rejection & seething hate of all things Trump they even publicly said they would not trust a vaccine produced on Trump’s watch, and would not take a vaccine produced on his watch.
    Now that’s fanatical rejection on steroids .

  3. The Augusta Press couldn’t find someone with experience in Afghanistan, diplomacy or the Taliban to write a commentary? This guy has none of the above.

    If I want to know about airborne, electronic warfare, then Leonard’s your guy.

  4. Mr. Hennessey’s assertion that the failure of the withdrawal rests with the Trump administration is fundamentally flawed. Sure, the former advisors may have had talks with the Taliban without the legitimate Afghan government, but that does not mean that the Biden administration had to stay the course. It seems the current administration took a play straight out of Obama’s first administration play book: blame the former administration for all of our problems. Maybe the biggest miscalculation the Biden administration made was that the media would go along with its blame game. If the Biden administration felt its hands were tied by the Trump administration, maybe they should have admitted that the fall to the Taliban was inevitable. I have served in Afghanistan, and I do have some insight into the Afghan culture and psyche. I do know that Afghans generally align with strength, and will shift supposed allegiance according to their rational needs. If our administration’s advisors did not recognize the shift in allegiance, they need to admit to their incompetency, and shoulder the blame squarely on themselves.

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