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Afghanistan peace talks: U.S. pushes toward “face-saving way out"

Afghan policemen arrive near a site of a car bomb in Kandahar. Photo: Javed Tanveer/AFP/Getty Images

The ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban are a “charade” designed simply to provide the U.S. a “face-saving way out of Afghanistan,” former CIA deputy director Michael Morell tells Axios.

Why it matters: The Trump administration wants to move quickly toward a deal to end the war in Afghanistan. But Morell, who now hosts the Intelligence Matters podcast, is one of several experts and former officials warning that such a deal won’t secure peace.

  • “The president has said the Taliban is tired. That’s not true. The Taliban controls more territory than at any time since the 9/11 attacks and it seeks what it has always sought: to fully control Afghanistan as a one-party state,” Morell contends.
  • He says a recent Taliban video that justifies the 9/11 attacks based on “interventionist” U.S. policies — and threatens “vengeance” against Afghan security forces — “represents [the Taliban's] true views” more clearly than anything told to U.S. negotiators.
  • Despite the U.S. red line that Afghanistan never again be used as a base for international terrorism, Morell says the Taliban would welcome al-Qaeda back into the country after a U.S. withdrawal.

The big picture: “This argument I’m making — that the Taliban is going to take over, al-Qaeda is going to have a safe haven — is exactly the argument the president made to stay in Afghanistan two years ago," Morell says. “But we all know… [then-Defense Secretary] Jim Mattis kind of dragged him kicking and screaming to that, and the president wants out.”

Where things stand: State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Thursday that the administration is “committed to” getting a peace deal, though she wouldn’t confirm reports of a September deadline.

  • Asked why the time is right now, given ongoing Taliban attacks, she cited the blood and treasure the U.S. had committed over nearly 2 decades “to see the people of Afghanistan have a choice for their own future.” She also referenced President Trump’s calls for withdrawal dating back “to his campaign days.”
  • The latest: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani released a joint statement on Thursday intended to show a united front on the path ahead. But the Afghan government has been shut out of U.S.-Taliban negotiations.

Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. now at the Hudson Institute, says the Afghan officials with whom he’s been speaking are deeply frustrated.

  • “How can a peace process take place when the United States will only talk to the enemy and not their ally,” he says, referring not only to the exclusion of Kabul, but also to Trump’s embrace of Pakistan as a partner for peace.
  • “Real peace in Afghanistan would mean that the institutions that have been built over the last 17 years are retained and the Taliban gets a share in the existing political system,” he says, “but the Taliban are ideologically not disposed to sharing power.”

Between the lines: "I would bet that the U.S. intelligence community and policymakers have a pretty good understanding of what the Taliban’s intentions are," Morell says. "So we’re making a deal that we know isn’t going to be kept just to save face, just to maintain honor.”

The flipside: After nearly 18 years, Americans tend to view the war in Afghanistan as a failure.

Reproduced from Pew Research Center; Note: Survey question changed in 2014 from "Do you now believe that the U.S. will definitely succeed, probably succeed, probably fail, or definitely fail" to "has mostly succeeded or mostly failed"; Chart: Axios Visuals

Trump is far from the only politician, or even the only president, to call for withdrawal. Many of his potential 2020 rivals also argue it's time to bring U.S. troops home.

  • "I understand the politics in the United States and I understand that in order to have military force somewhere on the planet that has to have political support," Morell says.
  • He acknowledges that the shift in objectives to "remaking Afghanistan into a multi-party democracy didn’t make a lot of sense at the time," adding, "that’s what we failed at over the last 17 years."

What to watch: The administration has said the pace of withdrawal would be determined by conditions on the ground.

  • There are reports a small counter-terror force could remain in the country, though the Taliban is likely to reject such a proposal.
  • Morell says that if Trump is determined to pull out, he should "tell the Taliban that if al-Qaeda comes back, we’re going to do what we have to do."