OCONOMOWOC — The Taliban announced its annual spring offensive against the Afghan government April 12. In a country that has been in the throes of armed conflict for the last 40 years, the Taliban declaration came as a disappointing but nevertheless unsurprising development.
Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration’s special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, blasted the insurgents for sullying an atmosphere of dialogue that has persisted for months. “The Afghan people deserve and want a comprehensive ceasefire and negotiations leading to a lasting peace,” Khalilzad wrote on Twitter. “US stands with them.”
While it certainly doesn’t help the ongoing peace talks between the United States and the Taliban, the spring offensive need not be a deal breaker, either. In truth, there was very little peace and quiet in Afghanistan even before the Taliban issued its announcement. It’s a sad fact of life that in this war-scarred Central Asian country, peace negotiations can and will proceed at the same time the war on the ground continues.
The good news is the United States, the Taliban, the Afghan government and prominent Afghan opposition figures all appear to grasp the fundamental reality that none of Afghanistan’s litany of problems will be solved through military means. Though Taliban fighters remain tenacious on the battlefield — if anything, the fighting has only accelerated in recent weeks — the organization’s leadership has yet to pull the plug on diplomacy. In fact, as of this writing, Taliban officials are now meeting with Khalilzad in Doha for another round of scheduled talks to discuss how a U.S. troop withdrawal and counterterrorism assurances from the Taliban would proceed.
No amount of ordnance, ammunition or joint U.S.-Afghan kill-and-capture raids will compel the Taliban to surrender. Similarly, no amount of ambushes, suicide bombings or large operations against the Afghan security forces will force Kabul’s collapse — particularly if Washington and its allies and partners continue to provide the Afghan government with the financial support to sustain its army. We are in all respects at a stalemate.
The diplomatic process Ambassador Khalilzad has managed since last year is the only way this long conflict will end in something that can be called an acceptable result. The war in Afghanistan, 17 years and counting, needs an endgame. The American people demand it, and the Afghan people are desperately clamoring for it.
For Washington, the endgame is clear. The United States need not build up a Swiss-style democratic paradise in Afghanistan to protect the American people or ensure terrorist groups are unable to use the country as a base for attacks against the homeland or its interests. The former objective was fanciful anyway, a delusional exercise that could only be accomplished if the United States were prepared to invest far more military personnel, money and time to see it through to the end. And even after all of the additional investment in lives, treasure and patience, the end may still be out of reach.
All successful diplomacy requires is a political solution that is good enough. The goal should be an Afghanistan where all the stakeholders, ethnic groups, tribal figures, civil society representatives and reconcilable insurgents can operate in a political system that takes all of their interests into account. While this is certainly easier said than done, it will only get more difficult the longer Afghans across the political spectrum put off the effort.
With Afghans no longer fighting one another, they can focus their collective energy on eradicating groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State — two groups wholly at odds with Afghanistan’s social fabric. Having experienced firsthand the pain and loss that can ensue when its movement binds itself to transnational terrorists, the Taliban has as much reason to fight these groups as everyone else in Afghanistan.
If the United States can take away one critical lesson from this depressing experience in Afghanistan, it is this: The U.S. military can only do so much in circumstances where military solutions are either few and far between or unavailable. America’s men and women in uniform have a lot of intellect, talent and power at their disposal, but they don’t have all the answers. And the foreign policy decision-makers and planners in Washington should stop expecting our troops to act like they do. U.S. military personnel are not miracle workers, nor are they white knights who can charge into every conceivable crisis with a ready-made solution.
In the 18th year of this war, the world may be seeing light at the end of the tunnel. America’s capable diplomats can set the table for a diplomatic resolution in Afghanistan, but most of the work will and should rest on Afghan shoulders.
American troops have performed admirably. Now it’s time to give American diplomats the possibility to do the same.