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What we owe Afghanistan

Our mission there began in response to 9/11, but it became a partnership.

Members of the 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade advising local Afghan Armed Forces members during their deployment, at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan on April 10. (Sgt. Jordan Trent/U.S. Army handout/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

During my last deployment to Afghanistan, in 2011, I spent a lot of time talking about skiing: the economics of chairlifts vs. gondolas at a resort; to allow snowboarding or not to allow snowboarding; the ideal price of a lift ticket. The logistics officer for the Afghan counterterrorism unit that I advised, a fast-talking, good-looking Tajik named Aziz with a knack for doing complex arithmetic in his head, was fixated on the subject. It wasn’t the sport itself that had captured his imagination but rather the idea of opening a ski resort when the war was over. Anyone who has spent time in Afghanistan, particularly in the east, can attest to the beauty and scale of those mountains, as dramatic as anything you might find in the Rockies or the Alps.

The fantasy of one day skiing down the jagged slopes, whose sides we often clung to in firefights, was a welcome diversion from the grim reality of our war. With Aziz, though, this dream was not escapism. He could navigate any environment — procuring materiel from the U.S. military’s labyrinthine supply system, looking for weapons in a Waziri black market, hooking me up with a new pair of ear buds when I lost mine. If anyone could make this happen, he could. Such was his talent that no one called him Aziz. Everyone called him “Big Cheese,” as in the big cheese, which half-jokingly (but also half-seriously) became the name of the ski resort he was assiduously planning: “Big Cheese Skis.”

One night, toward the end of that deployment, the two of us sat drinking by the fire pit at our remote outpost. Aziz had again been holding forth about his plans, the braid of trails that would connect certain valleys, how his resort wouldn’t be more than three hours’ drive from Kabul’s international airport, when he turned to me and asked, “If I built it, would you come with your family?”

“Of course,” I said. “So long as it’s safe.” We shook on it.

In recent months, I’ve been thinking about that handshake, and whether I’m really obliged to visit Aziz if he ever builds his resort. In the years since I left Afghanistan, the idea of returning in peacetime — even the idea, 18 years in, of “peacetime” — has held a powerful allure. I’ve imagined what it would be like to see visitors come to my old battlefields, not only to learn the history of what took place there but also to admire the progress that had been made. It might sound absurd, but the idea of an international ski clientele zipping down a black diamond where I’d once been ambushed fills me with emotion, not unlike what I would imagine a D-Day veteran today feels when visiting a beach in Normandy packed with sunbathers.

Troops coming home? That’s more likely to mean a war is lost than won.

This past week, however, President Trump called peace talks with the Taliban “dead” after simultaneously announcing and canceling, via Twitter, a Camp David meeting with Taliban leaders, in apparent response to the recent attack that killed Army Sgt. 1st Class Elis A. Barreto Ortiz. But peace in Afghanistan remains as close as it’s been in nearly two decades. Our fatigue, as well as the Taliban’s, has brought both sides to the table. Estimates put the number of their dead around 60,000. After 18 years of war with more than 2,000 Americans killed and more than 20,000 wounded, plus a price tag estimated in the trillions, it’s tempting to argue that once our government and the Afghan government reach a peace agreement with the Taliban, our obligation to Afghanistan is over.

But our war in Afghanistan represents 18 years of promises: to local leaders who’ve allied themselves with us at great personal risk; to women who’ve taken steps toward equality; to soldiers in the Afghan National Army who’ve bled to keep their country from falling apart; and to the Afghan government itself. If Americans want a sustainable peace in Afghanistan, we can’t achieve it by turning our back on these promises — if we do, the likeliest outcome will be an escalation into civil war. For good or ill, we have a moral obligation to our Afghan partners. Although our war began as a direct response to the 9/11 attacks and the Taliban’s harboring of al-Qaeda, along the way it morphed into a sincere effort to stabilize a fractured society. Our obligation is to see that effort through. This doesn’t mean building a perfect democracy but establishing a system that’s stable enough to endure beyond our withdrawal.

At the same time, our Afghan partners have a moral obligation to us. Years of corruption and double dealing with adversaries such as Iran and Pakistan have strained our relations under Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani. The Afghans haven’t always been reliable partners in war (their siphoning of billions of dollars in aid, their acquiescence to the Taliban’s opium trade, the incompetence bordering on negligence in their high command). The question remains what type of partners they might be in peace. Given the sacrifices made by Americans to create that chance, the Afghans have an obligation not to squander it through the cynicism that has characterized so much of the war effort.

History to Trump: CIA was aiding Afghan rebels before the Soviets invaded in ‘79

A peace deal, then, should equip all sides (including the Taliban) to fulfill their obligations to one another. Our recent negotiating strategy, however, in which the Afghan government hasn’t been a direct party to discussions with the Taliban, might make it easier to reach a deal, but it undermines the prospects for a lasting peace.

This strategy resembles the flawed American negotiations leading up to the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, in which national security adviser Henry Kissinger cut out the government of South Vietnam. To end that war, we negotiated directly with North Vietnam and presented final terms to South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu as a fait accompli. He had days to accept them or America would cut off aid to the South, whose government Washington had long treated with scant regard. Those terms were ultimately accepted, which further undermined the legitimacy of Thieu’s already fragile government and paved the way for the fall of Saigon only two years later.

American negotiators today are treating Kabul the same way. They’ve taken the liberty of offering the release of thousands of Taliban prisoners held in Afghan prisons — without the consent of the Afghan government. An agreement with the Taliban that delegitimizes Ghani will weaken his central government, increasing the likelihood that Afghanistan will return to a state of civil war after an American withdrawal.

Honoring our obligations might mean an enduring commitment of military and nonmilitary aid, if Kabul wants it. For the Afghan government, it will mean retiring decades-old tribal and ethnic antipathies while reintegrating the Taliban into political life.

It’s a tall order, for all sides.

As a veteran of the war, I will of course be watching. Specifically, I’ll be watching one scenic valley in the Hindu Kush, wondering if years from now I’ll see a certain ski vacation advertised around there by an old war buddy. If I do, I’ll be packing up my family and buying airline tickets. But if I ever get to make that trip, it won’t be because I’m honoring a promise to Aziz. It’ll be because we honored a promise to each other.

Twitter: @elliotackerman

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