Two of the most senior officials involved in planning the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden warned Thursday that a U.S. pullout from Afghanistan would result in a Taliban takeover within a year.
After a six-month delay, peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are due to start Saturday in Qatar, following Kabul’s transfer on Thursday of six high-priority Taliban prisoners to Qatar. The complicated three-way peace negotiations between the United States, the Taliban and the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani required the Taliban to release up to 1,000 Afghan security force personnel it had taken prisoner, and Ghani’s government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners.
Meanwhile, the top U.S. general for forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, said Wednesday that the U.S. would reduce its military presence in Afghanistan from 8,600 to 4,500 by late October or November. The peace deal signed in February between the United States and the Taliban commits the U.S. to a complete military withdrawal from Afghanistan once the Taliban has acted on its obligations to not cooperate with any terrorist groups that threaten the United States or its allies.
But retired Adm. William McRaven, who as commander of Joint Special Operations Command oversaw the planning and execution of the bin Laden raid, was skeptical that the Taliban would follow through on its commitments.
“I’m not personally convinced that any deal with the Taliban will be worth the paper that it’s written on,” he told an online audience during a discussion hosted by the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security. “If we were to pull out U.S. troops completely from Afghanistan, it would not take the Taliban more than six months to a year to come back to where they were pre-9/11.”
Michael Morell, who was deputy director of the CIA at the time of the raid, and later served twice as acting director, said he shared McRaven’s concerns about the peace deal. If U.S. and coalition troops withdrew from Afghanistan, and then the United States ended financial support to the Afghan government, “my assessment is that the Taliban would take over the country again in a matter of months,” Morell said. In addition, despite the terms of the peace deal that explicitly forbid it, “my assessment is that they would provide safe haven to al-Qaida.”
Both former officials said the best approach for the United States would be to leave a small military force in Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban from retaking power as well as to conduct counterterrorism missions against jihadi organizations like al-Qaida or the local branch of the Islamic State.
After 19 years of war, keeping even a few thousand troops in Afghanistan is “a high price to pay,” McRaven acknowledged. “But what we have learned in the military is how to do this in a way that hopefully will not lose a lot of great soldiers.”
He added that the U.S. will “probably need to be in Afghanistan for a very long time.”
But Morell said any strategy to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan would depend on the support of the American public, which has grown far more pessimistic about the conflict in recent years, according to some polls. Without public support, the United States would be forced to withdraw, in which case “we’re going to have to find a way to do two things,” he said.
First, Morell said, the United States would have to figure out how to collect intelligence on what was happening in Afghanistan, with a particular focus on whether al-Qaida had reestablished itself there and was preparing any attacks on the U.S. If that turned out to be the case, the second thing the United States would have to do is “to find a way militarily to reach in there and deal with that problem,” he said.
But in a news conference Thursday, President Trump did not seem to be thinking in these terms. “We’re getting along very, very well with the Taliban and very well with [the government of] Afghanistan and its representatives,” he said. “We’ll see how it all goes. It’s a negotiation.”
McRaven, often a critic of Trump, did not lambaste the president for his desire to end the United States’ war in Afghanistan.
“You can’t lay this at the feet of the Trump administration,” he said. “I think the Trump administration is trying to figure out what is a graceful exit strategy in Afghanistan. I don’t know that there is a graceful exit strategy.”
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