What to do about Afghanistan? It’s a problem so complex that even ardent Trump critics might muster a little sympathy for his predicament. President Donald Trump didn’t create our nation’s longest-running war, but the obligation to find a way out of it has landed on his plate.
In fact, Trump campaigned on a promise to withdraw the 14,000 troops who remain in Afghanistan, and many Americans support this goal. Eighteen years is long enough. Since 2001, 2,400 American service members have died there, including at least 14 this year.
But the Taliban are stubborn and resilient. They will not be defeated on the battlefield without a huge commitment of U.S. military resources and an open-ended presence in Afghanistan that could last far into the future. Few Americans support that.
So the Trump administration has pursued extended negotiations with the Taliban in the effort to create a power-sharing arrangement with the current Afghan government. The talks haven’t gone well. Last week, after the cancellation of an ill-considered meeting with the Taliban at Camp David, Trump declared the talks “dead.”
Besides, no one believes that the Taliban would abide by a power-sharing agreement. The fragile Afghan government would fall quickly. The Taliban are the worst of Islamic extremists, and they will thrive in the vacuum left behind. Reprisals are inevitable. Thousands would die and thousands more would suffer grievously under Taliban rule. Women would suffer the most, and generations of little girls would face a lifetime of oppression.
Nor do Taliban promises to forswear connections to al-Qaida have much credibility. Soon Afghanistan could become the sort of sanctuary for jihadism that it was before 9/11.
Negotiating with the Taliban may have been Trump’s only choice, but it was always a no-win choice. Talks with the Taliban were always unlikely to turn out well.
We should negotiate with Iran, instead.
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I have no illusions about the current regime in Iran. It, too, is oppressive, homophobic and misogynistic. It supports its interests in unsavory ways all across the Middle East.
But Iran is a powerful, proud nation with democratic instincts unheard of in Saudi Arabia. They date at least to the early 20th century, when Iranians rejected royalty in favor of a parliament. Unfortunately, Iranian efforts at democracy have been thwarted by the West’s thirst for oil, which eventually made the 1979 revolution almost inevitable. Without British and American interference over the last century, Iran would be a very different place today. That history can’t be remedied, but it provides a little hope for Iran’s future.
We have almost no leverage in negotiations with the Taliban. We have a great deal with Iran. Iran is desperate for sanctions relief and it would welcome the withdrawal of American troops from its eastern and western borders. When we invaded Iraq in 2003, we nearly guaranteed Iranian hegemony from Tehran to Damascus, including Iraq. We should let them have it. The Shia Iranians will not tolerate a Sunni Islamic state in that area.
Further, Iran will not have much patience for a radical Sunni regime on its eastern border in Afghanistan. Our withdrawal would create room for Iran to influence the creation of a regime stable enough to serve as a buffer between Iran and Sunni Pakistan.
Some elements are non-negotiable: Israel’s security must be maintained, as well as protection for the Kurds, the elimination of bases for international jihadism and the guarantee of at least as much status for women as they experience in Iran.
International stability usually involves a balance of power. In the Middle East, the competing weights are Shia (Iran) and Sunni (nearly everyone else). At present our thumb is heavily on the Sunni side of the scale.
A resurgent Iran balanced by a powerful Saudi Arabia is a gamble. But it’s their neighborhood. We’ve probably reached and overreached the limit of our ability to control events in the Middle East. Better to accept the reality that we have than continue the futile effort to achieve the one that we think we want. Make a deal with Iran.