Ending the war in Afghanistan

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 10th of September, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up, ending America’s longest war.

Next month it’ll be 18 years since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. The goal was to overthrow the Taliban. The militant Islamic group controlled the country at the time and gave sanctuary to al-Qaeda terrorists, including the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. military successfully accomplished that mission.

EICHER: But getting out of Afghanistan is proving difficult. Although the Taliban no longer run the government, the group is still a powerful force. 

Other terror groups, including ISIS, also pose a looming threat. Battling those enemies has made it nearly impossible to end what has become the longest war in U.S. history.

After 10 months of peace talks with the Taliban, administration officials were inching closer to a deal that included a significant drawdown of American troops. But on Monday, President Trump declared those talks over.

TRUMP: They’re dead. They’re dead. As far as I’m concerned they’re dead. They thought they had to kill people in order to put themselves into a better negotiating position….you can’t do that. You can’t do that with me.

WORLD Radio’s Jill Nelson reports now on the obstacles keeping Americans from leaving Afghanistan.

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: Former President Barack Obama had high hopes of bringing troops home from Afghanistan.

OBAMA: I’ve set a timetable. We will have them all out of there by 2014.

That was five years ago, and we still have more than 14,000 troops in the country. That’s far less than during the 20-11 surge when numbers reached nearly 100,000. But the Trump administration hopes to bring that number even lower. To do that, U.S. negotiators have been talking with the group we hunted down in 2001.

TRUMP: We’re having very good discussions with the Taliban…

The Taliban emerged in the 1990s with two goals: turn Afghanistan into a theocracy and purge the country of foreign influence. And its focus today remains mostly unchanged. Talking with a group that has harbored terrorists, imposed sharia law, and continues to carry out suicide attacks is risky. Some say it delegitimizes the government in Kabul.

Former U.S. Ambassador Alberto Fernandez is a retired U.S. diplomat who served in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2003. He’s now president of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. Fernandez says the criticism is understandable, but negotiations may be necessary.

FERNANDEZ: These are not, ya know, nice guys. On the other hand, they have a constituency. There’s good reasons to be talking to them. There are good reasons to be seeking for a solution but one has to have one’s eyes wide open for what they are.

Retired U.S Army Colonel Christopher Kolenda agrees. He was the first person to fight the Taliban in combat and engage them in high-level diplomacy. He says it’s not easy sitting across the table from people who have killed or wounded your closest friends. But the Taliban controls more territory inside Afghanistan than at any time since 2001. And it’s not going away any time soon.

KOLENDA: It would be nice if you only had to negotiate with your friends, but if you want to resolve a conflict you’ve actually got to talk to your enemies.

The United States just wrapped up its ninth round of talks with the Taliban. But last week, the Taliban claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in the Afghan capital that killed an American soldier.

Over the weekend, President Trump called off a previously secret meeting at Camp David with the Taliban and the Afghan government. Some fellow Republicans criticized the president’s decision to invite the Taliban to the presidential retreat in the first place.

But Kolenda says negotiations were already on the wrong path.

KOLENDA: We seem to have gone straight for the deal, so in baseball terms, kind of swinging for the fences. And the risk when you swing for the fence is you strike out quite a bit.

The Taliban wants all foreign troops off Afghan soil. But a complete withdrawal could create further instability and open new doors for international terrorist activity. According to President Trump, we may never be able to comply with Taliban demands:

TRUMP: That does seem to be the Harvard University of terrorism. So we’ll always have somebody there.

Kolenda says this is a major point of disagreement:

KOLENDA: You’ve had the president come out and say we’re going to keep 8,600 troops in Afghanistan and then we’ll review things later, and then the Taliban coming out and saying hey, 8,600 troops is not acceptable to us.

And this is only the beginning. The Taliban has yet to engage in diplomacy with the government in Kabul, which the group claims is illegitimate.

That’s why Kolenda prefers the approach of “hitting singles” and “getting runners in scoring position.” In diplomatic terms, that means a series of confidence-building measures, like a troop drawdown based on actual achievements not a fixed timeline. He would also like to see human rights improvements included in those measures.

But for now, negotiations are on hold.

Afghanistan has been dubbed the “graveyard of empires” for the seemingly endless missions launched there by foreign powers. Few, if any, have ended well. Fernandez notes we’ve spent close to a trillion dollars there and paid a heavy price in dead and wounded.

And while there’s a continued cost to staying, he says there’s also a cost to leaving.

FERNANDEZ: A lot of people going back years have said this is an unwinnable war. There’s no end game, we just can’t continue doing this. And people have kicked the can down the road, and I think to the administration’s credit and to the president’s credit they are trying to bring some kind of closure even though it’s not going to be completely closed to this issue.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Jill Nelson.

(Associated Press/Photo by Rahmat Gul) The site of a suicide bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Tuesday.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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