Last week, after four days of intensive discussions in Kabul between prominent Afghan representatives from across the country, the 3,200-member loya jirga released its recommendations for the peace process to the Afghan government and the Taliban. The conclusion was clear: if peace in Afghanistan is to be achieved, all parties now fighting must stop doing so, and engage in serious, substantive, inclusive political negotiations.

The conclusions of the grand assembly are the inevitable byproduct of four consecutive decades of armed conflict. Many Afghans are worn out from essentially a lifetime of violence that has killed tens of thousands of their countrymen and women. The American people, weary of the endless, and increasing hopeless, cycle of U.S. troop deployments to Afghanistan at a cost of nearly $1 trillion, want the longest war in our history to end.

The peace process between the United States and the Taliban has been rocky and turbulent. Some question U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s insistence on speaking directly with the Taliban at such an “early” date (perhaps an inept word choice for something occurring nearly two decades after hostilities began). Others support the peace process but wonder why the Afghan government was not brought into the negotiations sooner. Others openly call for Washington to walk away from the table with the Taliban to force them into accepting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as a legitimate player in the talks.

It would be foolish, however, to prematurely pull the plug on a diplomatic initiative that — for all its faults — appears to have produced some semblance of agreement on America’s national security bottom line: ensuring Afghanistan does not yet again become a terrorist bastion.

In an ideal world, the Afghan government and the Taliban would already be speaking with one another. But the ideal is infamously elusive, especially when other options present themselves. We can’t escape the reality staring us in the face: the Taliban, for whatever reason, are not yet ready to take Ghani’s administration seriously. (Perhaps the performance of Ghani’s predecessor has something to do with that.) Nevertheless, the U.S. can either work within this reality and shape it to our advantage, or it can withdraw from diplomacy despite the lack a better alternative.

Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad approaches the microphone to speak on the prospects for peace, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019, at the U.S. Institute of Peace, in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad approaches the microphone to speak on the prospects for peace, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019, at the U.S. Institute of Peace, in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Ambassador Khalilzad’s efforts with the Taliban could very well fail. But they also may succeed. After 18 years of war, the U.S. can’t afford to waste any more time, lives and money on chasing a perfect outcome. The American people want their troops to come back home. The average Afghan wants their children to grow up without violence possibly cutting their lives short. Walking away from the current talks will not serve any of these goals.

Keeping diplomacy alive doesn’t mean going soft on the Taliban. Washington has cards to play, including the carrot of significant U.S. and international economic assistance to Afghanistan in the event of an intra-Afghan peace settlement. While the Taliban may continue to regard the Afghan government as an illegitimate puppet government unworthy of recognition, Khalilzad and his team should continue to stress to the insurgents that Kabul cannot be ignored or dismissed forever. The Taliban must understand that if they want to be incorporated into the Afghan political fabric, the can only do so by engaging in the hard but necessary discussions with fellow Afghans.

No deal is better than a bad deal, a phrase perfectly appropriate in the present Afghan context. The United States, after all, invaded Afghanistan after the most catastrophic terrorist attack in American history. Unless U.S. policy dramatically changes, no peace accord with the Taliban will be possible unless three core U.S. interests are sufficiently addressed.

First, counterterrorism assurances from the Taliban must be front-of-mind for U.S. negotiators. An Afghanistan that is hospitable to transnational terrorist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State is unacceptable and won’t be tolerated. In his discussions with the Taliban over these many months, Khalilzad has emphasized this imperative many times. If the Taliban are either unable or unwilling to provide the necessary security arrangements that would alleviate the terrorism problem to Washington’s liking, this entire exercise is a waste of time.

Second, Washington should make clear to the Taliban that a political settlement must respect the rule of law as laid out in the Afghan constitution. While it is ultimately up to the Afghans themselves to negotiate the political structure of their own country, the U.S. can and should deliver an unambiguous message that no U.S. financial assistance will be forthcoming unless all Afghans — regardless of sex, region, ethnicity, or tribal affiliation — are treated with equality under the law.

The U.S. has invested some $780 billion in Afghanistan over the last 18 years, a figure that doesn’t include the health and veterans benefits U.S. soldiers serving in country are entitled too for the remainder of their lives. It will be hard for the president or Congress to settle for a political arrangement that fails to provide the Afghan people with even a semblance of the government America has (perhaps unwisely) promised them.

Finally, the Trump administration — in close partnership with our NATO and non-NATO allies and partners — should educate the Taliban about what a peace accord does and doesn’t mean. While an end to the war will include a U.S. military withdrawal, the United States will continue to use other aspects of its national power to remain influential there. A peace accord must be enforced, which will likely include some degree of international monitoring and verification. If the Taliban believe ending the war will result in America leaving Afghanistan completely, they will be mistaken, and we all will suffer — especially those young American men and women ordered back into combat there.

Accomplishing these objectives will be incredibly difficult. But it’s incredibly naive to expect decades of fighting to be resolved in a few months. Keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan for another generation is untenable and strategically short-sighted, and the American people won’t stand for it. The talks are an opportunity. Turning that opportunity into a historic success, by reducing armed conflict and developing a self-governing Afghanistan good enough for the Afghans, if not good enough for Western idealists, beats more feckless war, emptying treasuries, and needless casualties on all sides.

Retired Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Phillips is a former deputy commanding general (U.S. Army Reserve) of the Army’s Trainining and Doctrine Command and a fellow at the American College of National Security Leaders.