‘The Taliban, per se, is not our enemy.” Thus spoke Joe Biden, Obama-administration vice president and resident foreign-affairs solon. It was 2011 and the administration was rationalizing its desperation to negotiate its way out of Afghanistan, where we then had about 30,000 troops (more than three times the current deployment). It was nothing new. Hamid Karzai, president of the fledgling Afghan government propped up by the Bush administration after the Taliban’s ouster, had been seeking negotiations for years . . . only to be spurned by the Taliban.
Of course, the Taliban did not get to weigh in on Biden’s babble. If they had, they would surely have said bluntly what they have demonstrated blatantly for 20 years: They are absolutely our enemy, not just per se but in aeternum.
If, as he stated in a Saturday Twitter thread, President Trump actually was planning to host Taliban leaders at Camp David this past weekend for what he and the administration describe as “peace talks,” that boggles the mind.
The Taliban terrorists do not wish to hold “peace talks” with us. As shown by the humiliating negotiations that the Trump administration’s emissary has been conducting in Qatar, the Taliban wish, at best, to chat about the terms of our surrender — i.e., about how willing they may be to let the president’s determination to withdraw our troops look like an honorable armistice rather than a case of our being chased out of their country. Allowing their leaders into our country — into Camp David for an audience with the president — would be every bit as outrageous as President Obama’s release of five Taliban commanders from Guantanamo Bay (in exchange for deserter Bowe Bergdahl, no less). It would be every bit as outrageous as the Obama administration’s issuance of a visa to Hani Nour Eldin — a member of an Egyptian terrorist organization that, like the Taliban, conspires with al-Qaeda to kill Americans — so he could come to Washington for talks about post-Mubarak Cairo.
President Trump now says he has rolled back up the red carpet initially laid out for these jihadists. He withdrew the invitation, he says, because of an attack last week in which the Taliban killed a U.S. soldier, in addition to a member of our allied forces (a Romanian soldier), and ten other people, while wounding scores of others. But why was yet another Taliban atrocity necessary to put the president on notice of what we’re dealing with? It wasn’t even the Taliban’s first attack of that week.
As I noted over the weekend, two days from now we mark the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, in which nearly 3,000 Americans were killed because the Taliban gave safe haven to al-Qaeda, fully aware of, and aiding and abetting in, al-Qaeda’s attacks against the United States. Bear in mind that 9/11 wasn’t a one-off. While in the Afghan sanctuary provided by the Taliban, Osama bin Laden’s network also executed bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing more than 200 people, and of our naval destroyer, the U.S.S. Cole, in 2000, killing 17 American sailors.
President Trump is antsy because he promised his base an end to “endless wars.” Alas, in the real world of hard choices, removed from rally-hall rhetoric, war does not come with an end date. The “endless war” trope betrays that, for all the president’s claims to a new realism regarding “radical Islamic terrorism,” he is missing the point. Afghanistan is not the war. The war is against the jihadist forces of sharia supremacism. We have to fight them wherever they work to stage attacks against the United States, our allies, and our interests.
For the foreseeable future, that will be an endless duty of American presidents. It is a modest commitment compared with past American wars. For example, if we just take Afghanistan-related operations, there have been approximately 2,400 military personnel killed since 2001. Obviously, every life is precious, but this total over 18 years is a thin fraction of the more than 58,000 American military personnel killed in nearly 20 years of the Vietnam War, to say nothing of the more than 400,000 killed in World War II.
It is not President Trump’s fault that the Bush administration merged the national-security mission of protecting the United States from terrorist attacks with a utopian experiment in converting fundamentalist sharia societies to Western democracy. It has never been true that our safety hinges on how Islamic territories are governed and whether their subjects are free. We can try to be a good example of liberty’s virtues, we can wish the Muslim Middle East well. But whether or not Islam’s competing factions reconcile after 14 centuries of internecine bloodletting — this is not our problem, much less our military’s problem. Trump is right that it is not for us to be their police force or tell them how to live.
Our only vital interest is to defeat and disable our enemy aggressors. It is a remorseless fact that we need to commit forces for that purpose.
“For that purpose” does not mean nation-building. I couldn’t agree more that if our troops are in Afghanistan to play peacemaker in a civil war or to improve the Afghan quality of life, we should bring them home right now — and should have brought them home years ago. The American people supported sending our forces to Afghanistan because the attacks against us were orchestrated from there, and because we understood that if al-Qaeda was given time and space to plot, there would be more attacks on the scale of 9/11 — or worse, since the jihadists were known to be pursuing “dirty bombs” and other weapons of mass destruction. We dispatched our best and bravest young men and women to a hellhole for our security, not for the betterment of the culture that breeds the jihad.
The problem has not been 18 years of military presence. We’ve had much longer military presence in Western Europe and the Korean Peninsula. Virtually no one complains about it, despite the expense, because it is a coup for American national security. And no one, least of all us, expects the U.S. to transform a civilization. The problem in Afghanistan, to the contrary, has been the futile effort to remake its society on the backs of our troops.
This has included drafting a “democratic” constitution that actually perpetuates sharia as the law of the land. The Taliban wouldn’t need to change a comma of this constitution if they retook the country.
It has also included obdurately lying to ourselves about the Taliban. For 20 years, the State Department, under administrations of both parties, has refused to place the Taliban on the list of foreign terrorist organizations. This exercise is designed to maintain the fiction that they are not terrorists, a fiction so laughable that top government officials must stray from the script to avoid looking ridiculous. See, for instance, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussing efforts to “negotiate with the Taliban terrorists in Afghanistan” and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin complaining that Iran’s backing of the Taliban is “yet another example of Tehran’s . . . support for terrorism.” Besides the Treasury Department’s long-ago listing of the Taliban as a “specially designated global terrorist,” it also lists individual members of the Taliban — some of its most prominent members — as terrorists. And while the State Department stubbornly refuses to designate the Taliban a terrorist organization, it does designate the Pakistani Taliban (a different but related entity), as well as such Taliban components and allies as the Haqqani network and, of course, al-Qaeda. Everyone knows the Taliban are terrorists.
So why does Washington pretend otherwise? Why minimize them into mere “insurgents,” concerned only about local Afghan issues — as if they were indifferent to the global, anti-American jihad they so energetically aid and abet? Why does administration after administration delude itself into the belief that the Taliban must be “reconciled” with other Afghans through “peace negotiations” — notwithstanding that they refuse to recognize the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, and that they regard such negotiations as setting the stage for American surrender, not Afghan reconciliation?
Because our government seeks to negotiate with them, that’s why.
Our government, no matter who is running it, seeks to negotiate with the Taliban while insisting that it does not negotiate with terrorists. The Taliban continues killing Americans, and Washington continues imagining the Taliban — and some parchment arrangement with the Taliban — as the way out of the mess we got ourselves into by prioritizing the impossible task of fixing Afghanistan over quelling our enemies.
President Trump is right to intuit that Americans could not care less about how Afghanistan is governed, and that what incenses many of us is the sacrifice of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars poured into the democracy project. We didn’t go looking for war; we were attacked. We have no more to do with the indigenous peoples’ determination to cling to a culture of sharia fundamentalism frozen in tenth-century time than we do with their long-ago adoption of it. Our only care about Afghanistan is that it not be permitted to become, once again, a launching pad for jihadist attacks on the United States. But that requires being there — not as an occupier or savior, but as a strike force. Since there is no other capable force motivated to protect America, we need our own troops, Special Forces, and intelligence capabilities to do the job for as long as the job takes.
That job will no doubt continue to call for killing and capturing Taliban terrorists. It will never call for inviting them to Camp David.