Opinion: U.S. Must Be Able to See Wood for the Trees in Critical Negotiations with Taliban Over Afghanistan’s Future

With presidential elections in Afghanistan scheduled for September 28th, the United States and Afghanistan have reached a critical point in their bilateral relationship while the U.S. is trying to strike an agreement with the Taliban for peace, for the sake of the Afghan people and the country’s future.

As talks with the U.S. continue, the Taliban are not pulling their punches on the battlefield and the Afghan government is counter-attacking.

It is clear that the Taliban wants to maximize its leverage during the talks through terrorism and the Afghan government is fighting back.

Most recently, more than 30 people were killed and over 100 injured in a series of Taliban attacks in Kabul and Ghazni. It is the Afghan people who suffer most from the Taliban’s violence during this sensitive and critical situation.

These recent events have demonstrated that the Taliban can sow chaos, can inflict damage, and continue to instill fear into the Afghan population, but it cannot win this war militarily. Therefore, peace with the Afghan government – for however long it may last — is the Taliban’s sole resolution.

However, several months ago, a personal falling out between the U.S. and Afghanistan has still not been corrected and it should be fixed as soon as possible for the benefit of both nations.

Specifically, U.S. officials have made the decision to keep at arm’s length Afghanistan’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, a trusted senior aide of Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, over a less-than diplomatic comment that was made about the American special envoy to talks with the Taliban.

Understandably, the perception of being left in the dark over negotiations about the future of its nation and people because the Taliban did not want the Ghani government at the negotiating table is an irksome matter.  More importantly to America, the decision to keep Mr. Mohib at a distance has not served the U.S. interest.

Mr. Mohib is a trusted security advisor to President Ghani, whom he relies on and it is important, albeit critical, that the former Afghan ambassador to the United States, continues playing a central role in the bilateral security talks between the U.S. and Afghanistan.  As Afghanistan’s top diplomat in the U.S. previously, Mr. Mohib established very good working relations with the U.S. government and the Washington establishment.  Those relations and his continued work as the national security advisor remain as important as ever in preserving close security cooperation between the two nations during this fluid period in Afghanistan.

Indeed, Ambassador Mohib is America’s best-suited interlocutor on the Afghan side.

It is important for the U.S. to get past the misunderstanding for America’s sake and Afghanistan’s.  Afghanistan is too important an ally not to and al-Qaeda is a testament to that. An open, working backchannel between the U.S. and Afghanistan during our Government’s talks with the Taliban in Doha is paramount in ensuring the Taliban do not gain the strength it possessed before the tragedy of 9/11. Neither the U.S. nor Afghanistan can afford that again.

Certainly, strong security cooperation between the two countries at the level of national security advisor is needed now more than ever for both nations.

It has been reported that the U.S. has agreed with the Taliban that American forces will  leave Afghanistan by November 2020, although a Taliban  spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, has claimed that during the Taliban’s talks with the U.S. America “has agreed to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan and to not intervene in future Afghan affairs.”

Whatever the case, based on press reports and historical context, we can expect that the U.S. will continue to maintain a counter-terrorism presence in Afghanistan after that date, notwithstanding Taliban statements.  It will be doubly important for the United States to have close security cooperation with the Afghan government after the U.S. withdrawal.

The Trump administration is shepherding a very sensitive process in its negotiations with the Taliban, an organization that harbored al-Qaeda. The Ghani administration and the people of Afghanistan must be reassured that the U.S. will do right by them and not create a security vacuum by withdrawing in a way that will leave both nations worse off.   “Conditions-based withdrawal” benchmarks must be met by the Taliban. This requires a solid line of communication by the U.S. with the Ghani administration so that the latter knows what will be expected of the Taliban after an American withdrawal and the Afghan government can best manage new realities on the ground.  That American channel of communication to our friends in Kabul should run through the Afghan national security advisor.

Ultimately, it will be up to the Afghans themselves, their government – including the Taliban for now – to decide upon the future of their country.  History has taught us that their future will also be ours.

The United States should have the foresight to see the wood for the trees.

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