Special Briefing: Why America’s Longest War Just Got Longer

Special Briefing: Why America’s Longest War Just Got Longer

In this photograph taken on August 12, 2015, a US army soldier looks on with binoculars from his watchtower in insurgency-wracked eastern Afghanistan

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Why you should care

Trump’s talks with the Taliban just collapsed, leaving the path forward in Afghanistan muddy.

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.

WHAT TO KNOW

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A wounded man is brought by ambulance to the Wazir Akbar Khan hospital following a suicide attack in Kabul on Thursday.

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What happened? Peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban have collapsed after President Donald Trump’s administration threw together a meeting at Camp David with the hardline Afghan militant group — and then canceled it after an attack in Kabul killed a U.S. soldier. But while the Taliban’s attacks last week, including on multiple other Afghan cities, drew widespread global condemnation, the setback to Trump’s plans for a deal with the group hasn’t elicited any mourning in most world capitals. It points to a stark reality: The U.S. can expect little help from other nations if it wants to revive talks with the Taliban.

Why does it matter? The withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan was a key campaign pledge for Trump, and one his team has worked hard to achieve over the past two years. But with negotiations called off for now, the Taliban is threatening a fresh wave of violence targeting Americans. Both the U.S. and the Taliban share a common goal, albeit for different reasons: an end to America’s longest war — launched in 2001 after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Will that pull them back to talks? Time’s running out, with just 14 months left before the 2020 elections.

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

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In this photo taken on June 6, a US military Chinook helicopter lands on a field outside the Wardak Province governor’s palace during a visit by the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

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What was the deal? Peace talks so far had hammered out a largely classified peace deal under which the U.S. would gradually phase troops out of Afghanistan over 16 months. In return, the Taliban would have to provide assurances that it would follow the constitution of democratic Afghanistan — including the rights of women — and wouldn’t allow the country’s soil to be used for launching terrorist attacks against others. But as former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin writes as part of OZY’s latest original series, After The Longest War, trusting the Taliban is a risky proposition.

The unlikely guarantor of peace. On the surface, China and the U.S. are locked in a brutal trade war that only seems to get worse with each passing week. But there’s also growing recognition in Washington that any deal with the Taliban — and hopes for stability in a future Afghanistan — could hinge on China’s help. No other country enjoys China’s influence with both the elected Afghan government and with Pakistan — which has sheltered and supported the Taliban since the 1990s. China’s the biggest investor in both countries — and those investments in Afghanistan give it a reason to strive for peace there.

But who wants that role? Neither China, nor any other major regional power, wants to fill the void that a U.S. withdrawal would create in Afghanistan. The country is a vital security concern for Russia, China, India and Iran. But since 2001, they’ve all repeatedly refused to send troops on permanent missions to Afghanistan, even though Russian and Iranian soldiers and special forces have worked with the U.S. there on specific missions, starting with the war to remove the Taliban. There’s a reason for that hesitation: Afghanistan through its history has refused to be controlled by foreign empires: from czarist Russia and Britain to the Soviet Union and now the United States. Yet Afghanistan’s own security forces are woefully ill-equipped to tackle the Taliban and other militant groups on their own. That’s why American soldiers in Afghanistan represent the best bet for Moscow, New Delhi, Beijing and Tehran.

Trump’s not done. When asked on Sunday after the collapse of talks whether this could mean years before the withdrawal of troops actually happens, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “I hope not.” Ultimately, Trump and the Taliban have the same objective: U.S. withdrawal. Trump’s also known to like a showy move — hosting the Taliban at Camp David would certainly qualify — leading experts to suspect they’ll be back at the negotiating table soon enough despite any accumulated bad blood.

WHAT TO READ

Trump Smells a Bad Deal, Makes the Right Call on Taliban Peace Talks, by Peter Bergen on CNN

“However, you dress it up, Khalilzad is negotiating a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, not a peace agreement. Simply because the U.S. withdraws its troops from a conflict doesn’t mean the war is over.”

How Trump’s Plan to Secretly Meet with the Taliban Came Together, and Fell Apart, by Peter Baker, Mujib Mashal and Michael Crowley in the New York Times

“And even after it fell apart, Mr. Trump took it upon himself to disclose the secret machinations in a string of Saturday night Twitter messages that surprised not only many national security officials across the government but even some of the few who were part of the deliberations.”

WHAT TO WATCH

In Afghanistan, the Taliban Uses Violence as Leverage During Peace Negotiations

“There are peace talks between the United States and the Taliban, but the Taliban had wanted to maintain pressure and to remind both the United States and the Afghan government here in Kabul of their strength.”

Watch on PBS NewsHour on YouTube:

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

Was it worth it? A Pew Research Center poll conducted this spring found that only 38 percent of U.S. veterans thought the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting, compared to 36 percent of the general population. The U.S. Secretary of State said this summer that President Trump’s determined to have U.S. troops out of the country by the time the 2020 election rolls around

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