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Withdraw from Afghanistan with a Public, Negotiated Timetable

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The United States should withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan. The safest, most feasible and most ethical way to bring this about is through the establishment of a public, negotiated timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Such a timetable should be a core provision of an agreement negotiated by the United States with the Afghan government and with international military partners of the United States in Afghanistan governing the presence of foreign military forces in the country. Such an agreement would bolster the legitimacy of the Afghan government, as well as the legitimacy of the foreign military presence; such an agreement would dramatically increase the patience of the Afghan public, and of Western publics, for the operations of foreign military forces while they remain.

Recent public opinion polls clearly indicate that the American public no longer supports the U.S. war in Afghanistan. When Americans are asked about sending more troops, as General McChrystal is expected to soon propose, the response is even more lopsided opposition. If General McChrystal says he needs more troops to accomplish the mission he has been assigned, and we aren't willing to send more troops, that suggests that the mission needs to change to one that can be accomplished with the number of troops that we are willing to send. If there is no worthwhile mission that can be accomplished with the troops that we are willing to send, then our troops should be withdrawn.

I'm a firm believer in the idea that the United States should promote democracy by setting a good example. If the majority of Americans don't support the war, the U.S. prosecution of the war should not continue indefinitely.

Some may say that such important decisions can't be made according to the vagaries of public opinion polls. But in a democracy, the most important decisions are the ones most important to be decided democratically. Moreover, on questions of war and peace, past experience indicates that public opinion is not very volatile in its overall direction. Once the American public has turned against a war, they are usually done with it for good.

Some will continue to argue that the war in Afghanistan is making Americans safer. But there is no higher judge on this question than the American people. If the American people have turned against the war, either they don't believe it is making them safer, or they believe that whatever contribution the war is making to Americans' safety is too small to justify the human and financial costs.

Some may argue against a "precipitous" or "immediate" withdrawal. In the world of practical affairs, this is a straw argument. At the current juncture, the probability of an "immediate" U.S. withdrawal is indistinguishable from zero. In the debate on Iraq, when critics of the war advocated for a timetable for withdrawal, we were told that a "precipitous" withdrawal would be a disaster. Now a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq is the basis of an agreement negotiated and signed by the Bush Administration. Is that a "precipitous" withdrawal? If not, such a withdrawal from Afghanistan should be our goal.

A key goal of the U.S. government is that the government of Afghanistan be perceived as legitimate. But one of the principal barriers to the perception of the Afghan government as legitimate is the indefinite military occupation of Afghanistan by the United States and its allies. From the point of view of an Afghan citizen, whether and how the war should continue, whether and how and with whom in the insurgency there should be negotiations, are, to say the least, among the most important questions of public policy that the country faces. But key decisions about these questions aren't being made in Kabul. President Karzai has asked for an agreement governing the conduct of foreign forces. The United States government ignores him. President Karzai says there should be negotiations with top leaders of the insurgency. The U.S. government says no. How can the Afghan government be perceived as legitimate, when it doesn't have effective input into key decisions affecting the country's welfare?

It may seem anachronistic at this particular political moment to speak about the legitimacy of the Afghan government in the wake of the widespread allegations of fraud in the recent election. But this moment will pass. The United States has an urgent interest in working out a deal. Without a government perceived as legitimate to invite their presence, U.S. troops cannot remain in Afghanistan. After all, Soviet troops were also in Afghanistan at the request of an Afghan government, and the United States called that an occupation.

The political crisis around the election will almost surely be resolved somehow, perhaps with a national unity government including Mr. Karzai and Mr. Abdullah. And the question of the perceived legitimacy of the Afghan government will remain a central problem of U.S. policy.

Indeed the political crisis around the election presents an opportunity to make a bold move to enhance the legitimacy of the Afghan government. Already before the election President Karzai announced he would invite the Taliban to a Loya Jirga, or grand tribal council, to try and restart stalled peace talks. The idea of a broad national reconciliation process in Afghanistan that includes tribes backing the Taliban and other insurgents has long been advocated by the top U.N. official for Afghanistan, Kai Eide. A new Loya Jirga could establish a new national unity government, certainly including Mr. Karzai and Mr. Abdullah, but also including leaders representative of Afghanistan's various insurgencies.

Admiral Mullen has spoken of starting over militarily in Afghanistan. If we can contemplate starting over militarily, we should be able to contemplate starting over politically.

The conference in Bonn in 2001 that established the framework for the constitution and government of Afghanistan following the U.S. invasion had a fatal flaw. It excluded supporters of the Taliban. In this way it was similar to the post-invasion political arrangements in Iraq, in which supporters of the Baath Party were excluded. In both cases the decision created a class of people excluded from political participation who had the means and motive to create insurgencies, and insurgencies were the result.

The proposition that there will be negotiations with the Taliban and other insurgents in Afghanistan has been endorsed by General Petraeus and Admiral Mullen. The key points in dispute are when negotiations should begin and who they should include. The position of Admiral Mullen is that we can't go to talks yet because we'd be bargaining from a position of weakness. So the question is talk now and later or only talk later. We should start the talks now. Negotiations will surface the real issues in dispute. The process of negotiation will not be quick. All the more reason to start it now.

It is commonly said by U.S. officials that Taliban leader Mullah Omar is "irreconcilable." This begs the question: "irreconcilable" to what? This is certainly not the opinion of people who have been involved in the talks that have taken place so far, according to the reports in the British press.

The United States has one over-riding legitimate national security interest in Afghanistan: that the country not be a base for organizing attacks against the United States. If there are circumstances in which Mullah Omar and his men will sign and abide by an agreement that guarantees that Afghanistan will not be a base for organizing attacks on the United States, then Mullah Omar is "reconcilable" to the interests of the vast majority of Americans.

If the United States indicates its willingness to negotiate a timetable for the withdrawal of its military forces from Afghanistan with a national unity government, that will be a powerful incentive for the formation of such a government; because whoever participates in such a government will be "at the table" when the negotiation takes place.

[This is adapted from a talk given on September 14 at a forum at the Cato Institute in Washington. The entire forum can be viewed below.]