Former Special Reps. to AfPak: The US must define its aims in Afghanistan

| Apr. 24, 2017

“Is Afghanistan a forgotten war?,” Future of Diplomacy Project Faculty Director, Nicholas Burns, asked of, Ambassadors Daniel Feldman, Marc Grossman, and Richard Olson, at the opening event of the 2017 South Asia Week on April 24, 2017, which convened all living former Special Representatives for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“It has been forgotten at a political level in the United States,” affirmed Olson, who served as SRAP until December of 2016. However, all three speakers made it clear that it wasn’t a “forgotten war” for those who fought or served in a civilian capacity during the conflict, nor for the Afghan military, who suffered a deadly attack from the Taliban just last week.

As America’s longest war, the conflict has cost the United States and its NATO allies billions of dollars and thousands of casualties over sixteen years, with no clear plan for withdrawal. American troops first invaded the country in late 2001 when the Taliban refused to extradite Osama Bin Laden, who had taken refuge in Afghanistan, with the ultimate goal of expelling Al-Qaeda from their territory. Since then, American aims in the region had become blurred, especially since Bin Laden’s death in 2011 and the rise of the Islamic State, said Ambassador Feldman. He noted that the United States’ latest major strike in the country, deploying the so-called “mother of all bombs,” was not directed at the Taliban, but instead aimed to destroy ISIS strongholds in Nangarhar province.  

 “What are our goals in Afghanistan?,” Feldman asked. “Ousting the Taliban? Countering ISIS? Protecting the international community’s investments in infrastructure, women and education?” He called for a “hard analysis” of U.S. priorities in the conflict in order to determine the correct course of action under the Trump administration.

All three ambassadors said that a political settlement, supported by a comprehensive approach involving military, political and development assistance was essential to creating lasting peace in the region.

“Our aim should not be to find and defeat every Taliban, but to diminish their influence in order to allow for free political choice,” said Ambassador Grossman, citing successful U.S. efforts to end conflicts in Colombia by combating corruption and building effective political institutions. Ambassador Olson supported this view, suggesting that defeating the Taliban in an outright military victory was not only unlikely, given the failure of the US military surge in 2011, but would also fail to address the underlying issues behind the conflict, leading to further upheaval.

“I would argue that you can draw a straight line from U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 to the attacks on 9/11,” said Olson. Such abrupt withdrawals, he said, created a power vacuum that allowed violent groups to dominate in newly ungoverned spaces, a situation that could be replicated if the U.S. were to make a sudden exit from the current conflict.

Despite their support for continued U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Feldman, Grossman and Olson also emphasized that any process of resolution and reconciliation must be Afghan-owned to succeed. 

“That policy is more than just rhetoric,” said Grossman. “A plan of dictation will not work.” Instead, said Feldman, the US can create favorable conditions for such a process by improving Afghanistan’s economy, strengthening the unified government military and supporting democratic procedures.

 “Afghans need to see a better future to be motivated in the reconciliation process,” he said.

With the Afghan government in the lead, the U.S. could play a convening role, said the ambassadors, but added that it was important to consider the composition of the negotiating table. The three former representatives agreed that while it was ideologically difficult, the path to stability would have to involve negotiations with the Taliban, given the current balance of power in the country.

“The Taliban are not an ideal negotiating partner,” said Olson, “but they are our best option- the alternative is an ongoing land war in South Asia.” Ambassadors and Feldman echoed this sentiment. “The U.S. is ideologically opposed to the Taliban, but this is diplomacy,” said Feldman. “We have a duty to think about this conflict in a more strategic manner,” Grossman concluded.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Liliana Harrington. “Former Special Reps. to AfPak: The US must define its aims in Afghanistan.” News, , April 24, 2017.