U.S. troops patrol at an Afghan National Army base in Logar province, Afghanistan, in August 2018. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)
Columnist

At the military headquarters here where commanders oversee the United States’ longest war, an official explained in one sentence the U.S.-led coalition’s bottom-line objective: “Peace is a situation where we can leave and we don’t have to come back.”

But how will the United States move toward this endgame, as U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad nears conclusion of his secret peace negotiations with the Taliban jihadists whom America has been fighting for 18 years? Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is said to have complained late last week that a draft of Khalilzad’s agreement contains “mere promises” from the Taliban and major concessions by the United States, according to a knowledgeable Afghan source who talked recently with Ghani.

Ghani is particularly concerned, according to this Afghan source, about a U.S. pledge to release 13,000 Taliban prisoners, a reference to the Taliban as an “emirate,” a deal for “safe passage” of U.S. troops but not Afghan forces, and other measures that in Ghani’s view would diminish the sovereignty and authority of the current Afghan government. He also fears that presidential elections scheduled for September will be shelved.

A visit here shows there aren’t clear answers yet to the questions about transition that vex Ghani and others who want a stable Afghanistan. When officials try to describe the future, many begin with the word “uncertainty.” Nearly everyone supports peace, but none of the half-dozen U.S., Afghan or European officials I spoke with is sure just how it would work.

Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, who commands U.S. forces here, said he’s focused on preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a sanctuary for terrorists who could strike the United States and its allies. “The outcome in Afghanistan should be about safeguarding the national interests of the U.S. and our allies” by protecting their homelands, he explained in an interview.

The hidden danger is that if the Taliban does accept a peace pact with the United States, die-hard jihadists will move to the black flag of the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate, which has built a base in the territory it calls “Khorasan.” A U.S. intelligence analyst who focuses on “ISIS-K,” as it’s known, said the group is recruiting operatives who can cross borders, reach “seam cities” such as Tehran, Baku and Istanbul, and then operate in the West.

The strange dynamics of the ISIS-K fight became clear over the past two years in Jowzjan province, along the northern border, and Ghor province, in the northwest, the intelligence analyst says. Recruiters appealed to disaffected Taliban fighters, and ISIS-K was gaining ground, with about 350 supporters in Jowzjan and 200 in Ghor. But then it faced an unlikely double whammy: U.S. counterterrorism forces struck the top leadership, and mainstream Taliban fighters cleaned up the rest.

The growth of ISIS-K and its dual threat to the United States and the Taliban raise an intriguing possibility. Could the United States and the Taliban quietly cooperate against a common enemy, after a peace deal? Khalilzad’s draft agreement is said to contain language about the “elimination” of ISIS-K. This shared interest could provide a rationale for the United States to maintain a residual counterterrorism presence in Afghanistan, even after withdrawing its main force.

It would be a neat double-cushion shot, but analysts are cautious. “Can the Taliban existentially make the leap to letting us stay?” asked one official. “Their self-definition is that they exist to get out the Americans and their hirelings.” If the mainline Taliban did agree to this counterterrorism presence, would that cause more hard-liners to defect to ISIS-K?

The best hope for Afghanistan might be the simple fact that the nation is exhausted by war, and the younger generation is sick of the warlords and thieves who wrecked the country and profited from its misery. “Even if these talks fall apart, they have engraved ‘peace’ as the only way forward. Even the warlords are recalculating,” said one Western official who advises the U.S.-led coalition.

A glimpse of what the future might look like came in an interview with Nasrat Rahimi, the 31-year-old spokesman for the Interior Ministry. He deplored a new attack that killed eight people outside Kabul University. The ministry blamed the Taliban for the attack, though the group denied responsibility. “People hate this,” he said. “The only hope that my generation has is to see the end of the 40 years of war.”

Afghanistan’s modern history is a caution against optimism. “You can always default to the negative in Afghanistan,” said the Western official. But Khalilzad has pressed ahead, and he seems near a breakthrough agreement, whatever its defects.

The United States has spent so much blood and treasure here that the one unforgivable mistake would be to leave without a clear counterterrorism strategy to prevent our ever having to return.

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