Afghanistan's Forever War
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It has been a violent week in Afghanistan. And sadly, that is something we have said many times for the 17 years this war has gone on there. But this week came the deadliest attack on U.S. troops in 2018. The Taliban detonated a roadside bomb, killing three U.S. special forces. Insurgents also set off a car bomb outside a British compound yesterday that killed at least 10 people. We spoke this morning to Jennifer Glasse, a reporter based in Kabul.
JENNIFER GLASSE: It's pretty tense right here. One of my Afghan colleagues said to me, where do we go? There was a bomb last week. We heard that go off. That was about two miles away. Last night, there was a Taliban attack on a British security compound. That is about four miles away from me, and there's a mountain in between. And we actually felt the shockwave in my house.
GREENE: So will this war ever end? And specifically, will the Taliban ever be willing to negotiate some kind of peace? Chris Kolenda tried to make that happen. He's a retired U.S. Army colonel who has both fought the Taliban on the ground and some years ago helped set up a private back channel with representatives from the Taliban. He joins us this morning. Thanks for coming in, Colonel.
CHRIS KOLENDA: Thanks for having me, David. I appreciate being on the show.
GREENE: Is - are there active peace talks with the Taliban right now that are giving you any sort of optimism for some sort of negotiated peace?
KOLENDA: Well, there are. And the president has appointed Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to lead the U.S. effort for a peace process in Afghanistan. And Ambassador Khalilzad is probably the best suited American to advance this effort to a conclusion that creates a successful outcome for the United States. One of the major challenges that we're hearing about is that the Ambassador Khalilzad may be under a timeline. And I hope the Trump administration does not make the same mistake the Obama administration did.
GREENE: What was that?
KOLENDA: Well, by imposing a timeline. I mean, imagine if you're negotiating a car, you're negotiating a house. If one side is under a time crunch and the other side is not, then the side under the time crunch is going to make compromises that they don't want to make. So...
GREENE: But it's been 17 years. I mean, I guess I wonder, like, how long would you want this to go on before, I don't know, something more dramatic or ambitious happens to try and get control of this country?
KOLENDA: You're right, David. And look. I've spent four tours fighting in Afghanistan. I've got loved ones who were killed in Afghanistan. And the president is right to be tired of this war dragging on with no end in sight. I mean, we've spent over a trillion dollars in American taxpayer dollars. There are over roughly 2,500 American service members have been killed. Over 10,000 Afghan civilians are casualties every single year. The president is right to have a sense of urgency about bringing this war to a successful conclusion. And the key is successful.
So on the one hand, we've got to have that sense of urgency to push the Afghan government into a meaningful peace process to, at the same time, push the Taliban into a meaningful peace process but not establish a timeline for when negotiations must be finished because then the United States just forfeits leverage. It's the mistake Obama made. And I hope President Trump does not make the same mistake.
GREENE: What is a definition of success? And does the same definition of success apply to both the people of Afghanistan and to the United States?
KOLENDA: To take your second question first, it's a great one, David. And no, the definition of success is not necessarily the same. The United States went to war in Afghanistan after September 11 because of the September 11 attacks and because the Taliban were allowing al-Qaida to have sanctuary in their country. So a successful outcome in Afghanistan has to meet a - for the United States has to meet a minimum bar, which is Afghanistan is no longer able - is no longer going to provide safe haven to international terrorist groups.
Now, the key thing is the Taliban have already said and said repeatedly that they would not allow that to happen again. A second critical component is that human rights are assured. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all sides ought to be able to sign up for for that. And those two components, the counterterrorism part and the human rights part, are - would be the minimum for a successful outcome in Afghanistan. Those are entirely within reach. You've got essentially all parties - the Afghan government, the Taliban and the United States - on the same page with this.
GREENE: Entirely within reach - I mean, I think about the Taliban detonating a roadside bomb, killing three Americans, killing people at a British compound. What makes you feel that it is in reach if we're dealing with an insurgent group that is, I mean, committing acts of violence right now?
KOLENDA: Sure, David. And all sides are committing acts of violence right now. I mean, first of all, my heart goes out to the three American soldiers who were killed and to their families. There is nothing more devastating than having a loved one killed in a combat zone. And it's heartwrenching. It makes my blood boil when - to think about the fact that people are - Americans are still getting killed, Afghans are still getting killed in a conflict that has every way of being resolved.
The key thing to think about at this point is, you know, the talks are still unexplored and in exploratory phase. There's no expectation that the United States is going to stop their combat operations in Afghanistan. The Afghan government's not stopping their combat operations in Afghanistan. And the Taliban are not stopping their combat operations in Afghanistan. Once the peace process moves to a certain point where you can begin talking about reductions in violence, then we can expect to see some of that occur and a real test of sincerity on the part of all parties. But we're not at that point yet in the process.
GREENE: What would bring us to that point? I mean, you say that that, I mean, peace could be within reach, it's entirely possible. I mean, it almost - and I know you're not exactly saying this, but you almost make it sound like it's not that hard for Khalilzad to make these talks happen. Like, what what is holding this up? What is the key next step?
KOLENDA: Well, there's a couple of things holding us up, David. And the first one is just a lack of trust on all sides. I mean, when you look at the Taliban's February 14 statement to the American people, they said, look, United States, we think your aims are counterterrorism, good governance, counternarcotics and human rights. And they then went on several paragraphs, as the Taliban do, saying how the United States has screwed those things up. But they said, at the end of the day, we support these aims. We're willing to work with you on them. The Afghan government supports these same aims, so does the United States.
So on the - conceptually, it's simple. The details are difficult because of the lack of trust because there are a lot of perverse incentives on all sides or on various sides of this conflict to keep the conflict going. There are plenty of people making a lot of money in being very powerful over the...
GREENE: We'll sadly have to leave it there. We're out of time. Retired U.S. Army Colonel Chris Kolenda. Thanks so much.
KOLENDA: All right. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.