Last week’s announcement that U.S.-led peace talks with the Taliban had been called off relieved many, but distressed others who were hoping for an end to our longest war. After a suicide bombing killed 12 people on Thursday, September 5th, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged that the Taliban failed to live up to its commitments. Trump tweeted: “What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position?” Welcome to the Art of the Deal, Taliban-style.
Perhaps Trump is learning from his experiences with Israel’s longest war with the Palestinians and the difficulty he has experienced with his “Deal of the Century” proposal. While each situation differs in some significant ways, both serve as illustrations that wars don’t end when only one side wants it to end. Until one side wins and the other acknowledges defeat, a war will continue.
The Trump administration’s desire to “finally get the hell out of Afghanistan” might be an admirable one, but our departure before the Taliban has acknowledged its defeat will be interpreted as victory and embolden the group to return to its old ways. Though the Taliban and the Afghan ISIS groups are currently at least in part rivals, no one should preclude the possibility of a union between the two.
After the first Gulf War, enough Israelis believed that their war with the Palestinians could finally come to an end. But their generosity to the dispersed PLO, exiled to Tunisia, was interpreted as weakness. The PLO exploited it to recruit a new generation of fighters — a generation they educated with their newfound autonomy. Palestinian terrorism escalated dramatically, both in the number and severity of attacks.
Soon after the talks with the Taliban were scuttled, word came out that there was a plan for members of the Taliban to join members of the Afghan government and U.S. representatives at Camp David. Some believed that having Taliban negotiators on U.S. soil on September 11th, 2019 would be worse than “bad optics” — their presence would defile the venerable retreat in Maryland. But here too, the PLO’s Yasser Arafat had already accomplished that feat, soiling the grounds with his presence in 2000. During the Clinton presidency, Arafat spent more time in the White House than any other foreign “leader.”
Inviting bad actors, even those with American blood on their hands, is acceptable only after they have been defeated and have acknowledged their defeat. Until both the Taliban and whomever the Palestinians choose as their leaders acknowledge their defeat, their presence should not be tolerated on U.S. or Israeli soil, respectively.
Perhaps neither our war against the Taliban nor Israel’s war against the PLO/PA/Hamas is actually winnable. But both are certainly lose-able.
A complete pullout of all U.S. troops and advisors from Afghanistan will be celebrated from Kandahar to Quetta as a Taliban victory. Recall how Taliban propagandists compared Obama to Gorbachev when the new U.S. president simultaneously announced both a troop surge and a subsequent date for their departure from Afghanistan.
Likewise, any Israeli offer of more accommodations, cash, and autonomy to the PLO/PA/Hamas will be seen as weakness and will be exploited. Recall Arafat’s not so-secret messages to the Palestinian critics of Oslo that the “peace process” would buy them time to gain strength and continue the fight.
For American and Israeli lawmakers, the time to talk about peace will only come when the Taliban and the Palestinians feel their defeat and believe that they have better options than continuing to fight. Until then, the best we can hope for is a managed conflict, limiting our own casualties, and inflicting more severe casualties on our enemies.
A.J. Caschetta is a Ginsburg-Ingerman fellow at the Middle East Forum and a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.