The United States has a lot invested in Afghanistan: a longer war than both world wars and its intervention in Vietnam combined, more than $2 trillion, and more than 2,370 service members’ lives lost.
So why would the US choose now to enter into talks with the Taliban, the Afghan insurgency the US pushed out of power in Kabul in 2001 for harboring the Al Qaeda masterminds of the 9/11 attacks?
To understand the mounting signs of the Trump administration’s interest in negotiating some form of political deal with the Taliban, consider the conjunction of two key factors.
First is a US president, in Donald Trump, who has long considered Afghanistan a “bad investment” and who wants the nearly 15,000 US troops he begrudgingly agreed to keep there withdrawn – sooner rather than later.
Second is the presence in Afghanistan of the Islamic State. Despite pressure from both the US and the Taliban, ISIS continues to be an instigator of havoc inside the country and a cause for concern over the radical group’s potential to undermine broader regional stability.
Combine President Trump’s “America first” foreign policy, which promised to get the US out of “stupid” wars, with an equal promise to keep Americans safe from the terrorism of a West-hating extremist group like ISIS – and indeed to destroy it – and one outcome is talks with the Taliban, some regional experts say.
“There’s a certain logic to engaging with the Taliban now if you take together that President Trump was dragged kicking and screaming into the current Afghanistan strategy” of keeping thousands of US soldiers on the ground “with the fact that ISIS is still able to co-opt or flip parts of the country in the Taliban’s hands,” says Nicholas Heras, a Middle East security fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington.
“Suddenly for the US, as well as for all the regional actors with an interest in the conflict,” he adds, “the Taliban become the best of bad options for controlling ISIS in Afghanistan.”
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