Here Is What America Must Get Right Before It Leaves Afghanistan | Opinion

For many Americans, Afghanistan resembles a slow-motion train wreck—you could see the disaster coming from a mile away, yet you still find it hard to avert your eyes.

Despite spending over $740 billion—$132 billion in reconstruction assistance alone—Afghanistan remains mired in conflict. A day doesn't go by when some act of violence occurs, whether it's a Taliban ambush against an Afghan army checkpoint or an airstrike that goes tragically wrong. The country's politicians are often as consumed with infighting, score-settling, and personal grievance as they are in delivering for the Afghan people.

Afghanistan is still one of the most corrupt places on the planet, notwithstanding the anti-corruption and rule of law initiatives designed and financed by the United States. Kabul's health sector, severely impacted by the strains of war and a lack of donor support, is badly underfunded and under-delivering. Indeed, the violence could get even worse; if the U.S. and Iran are unable to deescalate tensions that have arisen over the past few weeks, Afghanistan could quickly become another front in the 40-year rivalry between the two nations. The Afghan people would bear the ultimate cost.

After 18 years of fighting and advising, I believe the American people would support a full U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan if President Trump gave the order. And yet while this sentiment is more than understandable, it's incumbent upon the Trump administration to get the best possible deal on behalf of America's national security. Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan and the administration's point man on the conflict, has been assigned this difficult task.

We don't know where the process will lead or whether an agreement with the Taliban is even possible. But what can be said for sure is that the current diplomacy, warts and all, is the best possible avenue for the United States and the Afghan people. While it has become a cliche, there really is no military solution to the war.

If Washington hopes to finally redeploy our forces out of Afghanistan and end a war that has proceeded for what feels like an eternity, it needs to dedicate as much time and energy into the peace track as it has in bombing Taliban positions. The entire national security apparatus across the inter-agency needs to support Khalilzad's efforts, regardless of how complicated they may be.

Not all deals, however, are created equal. Any agreement with the Taliban must be worthy of the considerable sacrifices U.S. troops have endured through countless deployments over the last 18 years.

First, the Taliban must not only break its relationship with Al-Qaeda but seriously commit itself to ridding Afghanistan of the very undesirable elements that brought the U.S. to the country in the first place. While reports suggest that Taliban officials have already agreed to this point in draft form, Washington and the broader international community must hold the Taliban to account on this commitment. It's one thing for the movement to offer a pledge, but something entirely different to actually go through with it. It's highly likely the U.S. and its partners, either through the U.N. or some other multinational forum, will need to monitor the arrangement after a deal is struck. To leave without some durable verification structure in place would be to take the Taliban's assurances for granted.

Second, any agreement must ensure that all Afghans regardless of gender, ethnicity, or tribe are given equal protection and respect under the rule of law. While it's likely some provisions in the Afghan constitution will need to be amended if intra-Afghan talks are to be successful, the U.S. should emphasize from the start that going back to the pre-2001 status-quo in terms of women and minority rights is unacceptable.

Lastly, the Trump administration must send a message to the Taliban that a full U.S. military withdrawal is not a preview to a full U.S. diplomatic or economic withdrawal. Washington will not leave Afghanistan in the rear view mirror, nor will it tolerate space for transnational terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to reconstitute. If the U.S. acquires intelligence that terrorists in Afghanistan are planning to attack the American people or its interests, the Taliban should know that Washington reserves the unilateral right to prevent the threat from materializing and will act in self-defense.

The United States can't afford to let hubris continue to cloud its judgment about what can be accomplished in Afghanistan. The country will never be the impeccable, American-style democracy so many foreign policy officials in Washington hoped to build from the ground up during the war's opening months. The ideal is simply not possible.

Afghanistan will be a violent country for a long time to come. This will hover over the ongoing diplomatic process even after it concludes one way or the other. But it doesn't make a good-enough peace any less important.

Rear Admiral (ret) Leendert "Len" Hering is the former Commander Navy Region Southwest, Region Northwest, Surface Group Pacific Northwest, Commanding Officer the USS Doyle (FFG 39) during Desert Strike and served as Action Officer Joint Operations Directorate J-33, The Joint Staff. He is a fellow at the American College of National Security Leaders and the Center for Climate and Security.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​