Stirring words from Tillerson to the Taliban: We may not win a battlefield victory but you won't either

A leftover from yesterday that I missed at the time and, now that I’ve seen it, wished I had missed altogether. Apparently we’ve reached the phase of stalemate in Afghanistan where we’re not even bothering to threaten the Taliban with defeat anymore. Etch these sonorous words in granite beside the other glorious battle cries of American history: We can’t win, but you can’t either.

The problem with playing for a tie here is that the home team ends up winning by default. America won’t occupy Afghanistan indefinitely; the Taliban will. Trump’s mini-surge is a symbolic gesture of resolve, indicating that he won’t be the American president who orders the withdrawal that ends up ceding the country back to Islamist cavemen. But somebody will. Might as well do it now, argues Kevin Williamson:

“Killing terrorists,” Trump says. Afghanistan has its share of terrorists, but what it mostly has is an endless civil war being fought among rival tribal interests in a rugged and empty part of the world that mostly has served only to get in the way when you’re marching your Macedonian army toward India. “Killing terrorists” in Afghanistan is not a national military goal with a defined set of conclusory conditions and a working definition of victory — it’s an eternal game of Whac-a-Mole using U.S. forces as the toy mallet. If concluding our efforts in Afghanistan before Islamic radicalism has been exterminated there means handing a victory to the ghost of Osama bin Laden — who is, let’s keep in mind, dead — then we are never leaving Afghanistan

Congress should step in here. The Authorization for Use of Military Force passed nearly unanimously by Congress and signed into law by President Bush on September 18, 2001, served its purpose in the immediate aftermath of the shocking events of September 11, 2001. The only member of Congress to vote against the AUMF, Barbara Lee of California, predicted that it would end up being a deathless “blank check” for worldwide military operations without the explicit and specific authorization of Congress, and in that she was correct. The AUMF should be repealed and funding for operations in Afghanistan cut off unless and until the United States can define exactly what it is that its military is to accomplish in Afghanistan, at which time a new, specific, and limited AUMF may be drawn up. If the answer ends up being “killing bad guys,” then maybe the current leadership in Washington should retire with a six-pack and some old Chuck Norris movies and turn this over to the adults.

Right. Afghanistan was never going to be a liberal democracy but a “victory” strategy there required, at a minimum, smashing the most regressive Islamist elements and leaving them broken beyond repair. Failing that, the simulacrum of democracy we’ve created is doomed. I wonder, in fact, why the Taliban doesn’t take the White House up on its offer of a fig-leaf peace treaty purely to expedite America’s evacuation from the country. For the past 10 years, at least, America’s political leadership has been looking for a way to withdraw under conditions that’ll let the U.S. save some face. A “negotiated settlement” with the Taliban would do that, sort of: If the Islamists agreed to join a coalition government with moderates and abide by the country’s democratic constitution, America could declare victory, pull out, and then the Taliban could wait a year or so before marching on Kabul and reclaiming power. The White House would be embarrassed, of course, but it would at least be able to argue that it had withdrawn on a high note, at a moment when the country kinda sorta had been stabilized. All the Taliban has to do to set that inevitable chain of events in motion is agree to negotiate. It says a lot about their contempt for American tough talk that they continue to refuse, expecting that the U.S. will give up and quit soon enough anyway.

Trump’s strategy, to play India off of the Taliban’s sponsors in Pakistan, feels a lot like his strategy with North Korea. There too we’re looking to pressure the bad guys’ patrons, China, into exerting more control over them. Hasn’t worked out for various reasons, one of which is that Trump is wisely wary of getting too tough with China for fear of how China might respond. He faces the same problem with Pakistan. When push comes to shove, the White House isn’t going to squander what little leverage it has over the Pakistani government as an “ally” by turning them into an enemy. Pakistani nukes are frightening enough when the country is nominally aligned with the U.S.; open hostility would create another nuclear or near-nuclear threat to the U.S. from a crackpot state to go with the ones from North Korea and Iran. If the U.S. has to lose in Afghanistan in order to maintain a relationship and avoid nuclear poker with Pakistan, it’ll accept losing.

This clip, by the way, was uploaded by Ruptly, a European arm of Russian propaganda network RT. Russia knows how feeble Tillerson sounds here and put it online for the rest of the world to enjoy.

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