Michael Morell is a contributing columnist to The Post and was deputy director of the CIA from 2010-2013, serving as acting director twice during that time. Mike Vickers served as undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence from 2011 to 2015.
The latest round of talks between the United States and the Taliban ended this week with no agreement, but with both sides noting progress and agreeing to meet again later this month. The Taliban is seeking a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal, while the United States wants a guarantee that the Taliban will not allow terrorist groups to operate from Afghanistan, and that it will reach a political deal with the Afghan government.
Call us skeptics — but we have deep concerns whether the Taliban will live up to the promises it may be about to make. Signing, and then breaking, a peace deal has occurred before in U.S. history — a North Vietnamese offensive in the aftermath of the Paris Peace Accords being the best example.
President Trump last month said that the Taliban is tired of fighting in Afghanistan. We don’t see it that way. To us, the Taliban is as energized as ever, controlling more territory today than at any time since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Nor do we see any signs that it has any desire to moderate its views or accept a multiparty democracy. On the contrary, it still seeks what it has always sought — to fully control Afghanistan as a one-party state, run on the basis on sharia law. And it is as willing to fight for that cause as ever.
And, the Taliban is not likely to break with al-Qaeda, despite what it is saying in the peace talks. The two groups have fought side by side for more than a decade, their children have intermarried, and they share a similar ideology. The Taliban would not break with al-Qaeda in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and it won’t do so going forward.
What is the most likely outcome of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, even as part of a peace deal? The Taliban will take over, and it will offer haven to al-Qaeda, which will again target the U.S. homeland. If the United States leaves, the Taliban may well be knocking on the doors of Kabul within a year, and al-Qaeda may well be capable of launching attacks against the United States within two to three years after that.
This is the argument that Trump made in August 2017, when he decided to leave our troops there for an indefinite period of time. He was right then, and nothing has changed to alter the validity of that view. A peace deal with the Taliban will allow us to leave Afghanistan with a sense of closure, but it will not solve our national security problem.
From strictly a security perspective, the best policy would be to maintain our forward base posture in Afghanistan. At a cost far below the $45 billion quoted by Trump, the United States and our partners could maintain a small military and a robust intelligence presence to support Afghan security forces — to ensure that the Taliban does not overrun the major cities — and to conduct counterterrorism operations when necessary. If need be, we could do this with approximately half of the 14,000 troops we currently have deployed there.
Such an approach would be the counterterrorism equivalent of strategies that the United States has successfully used before, such as our presence in Western Europe to deter Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces during the Cold War, or our long-standing deployments in South Korea to deter the threat from North Korea.
We understand, however, that foreign policy must have domestic support, and we know that many Americans are weary of the war in Afghanistan — and understandably so. In more than 17 years of combat, we’ve lost more than 2,300 U.S. service members and more than 31,000 Afghan civilians. We’ve spent more than $2.5 trillion, money that could have been spent on education, infrastructure, debt reduction, or any number of other important issues here at home. It was clear to us when we served President Barack Obama that he wanted out of Afghanistan, and it is clear to us now that Trump wants the same.
If we can’t keep forces there, what do we do to protect ourselves from a reconstituted al-Qaeda? We have two options. The first would be to make clear to the Taliban that, should it violate a peace agreement, we would use long-range U.S. and coalition air assets to keep it from massing the forces necessary to take over larger Afghan cities, a crucial step to controlling the country. In this scenario, the United States would have an embassy in Kabul from which we could conduct intelligence operations against the terrorists. And we could use regional military bases outside of Afghanistan to conduct the precision counterterrorism operations necessary to keep the terrorists degraded in those areas controlled by the Taliban.
If this first option is not politically possible, and we fail to prevent a Taliban takeover, we’d be forced to our second option — conducting intelligence and military operations in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan exclusively from regional bases. While much less desirable from an operational perspective, it is feasible.
We are confident that completely retreating from the Afghan problem would come back to haunt us. The Trump administration, even as it pursues a peace deal, should keep this reality front and center in its negotiating and in its strategic thinking about the future U.S. role in the region.