Sending the Right Signals on the Way to an Afghan Peace Deal

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, walks from a helicopter with U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass, Tuesday, June 25, 2019, as Pompeo returns to his plane after an unannounced visit to Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, walks from a helicopter with U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass, Tuesday, June 25, 2019, as Pompeo returns to his plane after an unannounced visit to Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Maj. Gen. Mari K. Eder retired after 36 years in the U.S. Army, where she served as former deputy chief of the U.S. Army Reserve. She is now a fellow at the American College of National Security Leaders.

"The hour for peace has come." So said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his June 25 trip to Kabul, Afghanistan, where he briefly held discussions with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. After four straight decades of war, the hope for a lasting peace is on the minds of Afghans across the Central Asian country from the Hindu Kush to the plains of Herat.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad's negotiations with the Taliban are a work in progress. While Afghan officials are optimistic about the possibility of an intra-Afghan dialogue -- U.S. and Taliban officials recently met for a seventh round of negotiations in Doha, Qatar -- the violence on the ground is as intense as it has ever been. Two U.S. troops were killed in late June during an operation in the southern Afghanistan province of Uruzgan, with a third dying from a non-combat related incident -- bringing total American casualties this year to 10. The Afghan security forces have taken a beating over the past four years, hindering recruitment and retention.

This January, President Ghani said that 45,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers have been killed since he took office in 2014.

Establishing a peace deal in Afghanistan is like carrying a massive boulder up a long mountain: It's far more likely you will slip and tumble rather than reach the peak. But when the only other alternative is more war, poverty and devastation, negotiations become a lot more appealing.

The Trump administration has rightly established some non-negotiable bottom lines in its talks with the Taliban.

First, Afghanistan must never again present a terrorist threat to the American people. Two, a political resolution to Afghanistan's problems must be solved by the Afghans themselves; after 18 years, it is folly to believe that policymakers in Washington can draw up solutions. And three, U.S. financial and intelligence support to Kabul will depend in part on the Afghan government's ability to protect the rights and liberties of all Afghans.

Washington has also been correct in demanding the Taliban's renunciation of al-Qaida, the very terrorist group that compelled the U.S. to enter Afghanistan in the first place.

As important as the structure of any agreement or the technicalities of any counterterrorism assurances are, however, the messaging U.S. officials use with friend and foe alike is equally essential. The Trump administration, from the president down, must be highly disciplined in the language it uses, both as the talks continue and when (or more likely, if) a deal is finalized.

For the Afghan government and people, this means assurance and offering a sense of confidence that Washington will not simply forget about Afghanistan once a peace deal is realized. While the conventional U.S. military presence will inevitably be reduced as part of

an agreement, economic, security and political assistance from the U.S. is highly likely to continue and, indeed, will need to continue if the Afghan army can remain operational. It is thus incumbent upon the Trump administration to remind its Afghan political and military colleagues of this reality: Just because the U.S. may be withdrawing troops doesn't mean the U.S. is preparing to put Afghanistan in the rear-view mirror as it drives away.

A large segment of the Afghan public is understandably concerned about what might occur after the departure of U.S. service members. Many will associate a departure of American military personnel with a departure of American support altogether. Constituents who suffered appreciably under the Taliban, such as women and minorities, are especially worried about the U.S. packing up and moving on.

Washington and its NATO allies, therefore, must take it upon themselves to convince the Afghan people that there is no correlation between a foreign troop withdrawal and the international community's broader attention to Afghanistan. Appearances like NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg's June 25 press conference in Brussels reminding Afghanistan of the alliance's continued security sector support will be instrumental in at least calming nerves.

Equally significant is what the U.S. and its partners communicate to the Taliban. Here, the message should obviously be tougher: While the world welcomes and indeed encourages the Taliban to become a legitimate participant in the Afghan political process, the movement would be highly mistaken to view a U.S. withdrawal from the country as a surrender.

The international community must communicate to the Taliban that it expects full implementation of any accord and that, through verification measures, the world will know whether terms are being broken. And if the Taliban is lax in implementing its commitments or violates them entirely, it will be held accountable for it. Under no circumstances will the United States allow Afghanistan to return to what it was prior to 9/11: an epicenter of transnational terrorism with the American people in its crosshairs.

Why should the Taliban believe threats coming from U.S. officials? Simple: because the group experienced firsthand the extent to which the United States will go in protecting its people. In October 2001, the U.S. air campaign began. Two months later, the Islamic emirate was gone and Taliban fighters were struggling for shelter. It's highly unlikely the organization would want to learn the same lesson twice.

Diplomacy is all about communicating the right signals. Sometimes, the situation calls for deftness in order to keep all sides at the negotiating table and expand the prospects for diplomacy. But in other cases, countries are required to be strong stewards of their position in order to limit misunderstandings and remove any ambiguity an adversary may hold. With the Taliban, the United States should be forceful and unmistakable.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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