Vietnam war
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Michael Kugelman |

(CNN) In recent days, with Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgency continuing to gain steam and America’s longest war staggering through its 16th year, analysts have started invoking the v-word (and it’s not “victory”).

Vietnam is a sadly apt analogy. Indeed, just as they did in Vietnam, 50 years ago, US troops in Afghanistan are fighting a costly, intractable, and unending conflict against a relentlessly resilient asymmetric foe.

The problem with the White House plan is that we’ve tried it before, during the troop surge in 2010 and 2011, and it didn’t work – even with the withering firepower of 100,000 soldiers unleashed on the Taliban.

However, it’s not a perfect analogy. The Vietnam War provoked impassioned debate back home, but Americans are hardly discussing the war in Afghanistan. It’s completely off the radar.

Read more: US Troop surge in Afghanistan: Will it work this time?

It’s high time we talk about this forgotten war, and especially with the Trump administration considering a new policy that would escalate US military involvement. Escalation would be a mistake, and it would further prolong a conflict that can’t be won.

The proposed strategy, according to the Washington Post, would deploy more military force against the Taliban to pressure it to come to the negotiating table.

The problem with the White House plan is that we’ve tried it before, during the troop surge in 2010 and 2011, and it didn’t work – even with the withering firepower of 100,000 soldiers unleashed on the Taliban.

One may reasonably argue that the warfighting capacities of Afghan security forces have improved considerably in recent years and that these better-trained servicemen, aided by US troops, will have more success tackling the Taliban this time around.

And yet, to assume that more robust military force alone will put the Taliban on the defensive is to underestimate the group’s strength and to underappreciate the many different sources of that strength.

The arrival of ISIS in Afghanistan has enabled the Taliban to project itself as a softer, more palatable alternative to the savagery of ISIS.

The Taliban leadership has safe havens in neighboring Pakistan, and insurgencies never die so long as they enjoy cross-border sanctuaries. The Taliban has also received periodic military support from Tehran. With U.S.-Iran relations having taken a tumble since President Trump took office, such support could intensify. Moscow, according to the US military, is now funneling aid to the Taliban as well.

Read more: Will American plan to increase troops in Middle East & Afghanistan be a self-built graveyard?

Additionally, the Afghan government is an unwitting source of strength for the Taliban. The weak and dysfunctional administration in Kabul is hampered by corruption and personal animosities and is hard-pressed to carry out even the most basic of tasks – much less craft a formal counterinsurgency policy.

Meanwhile, the arrival of ISIS in Afghanistan has enabled the Taliban to project itself as a softer, more palatable alternative to the savagery of ISIS. All of this increases the Taliban’s appeal and helps boost recruitment. The Taliban, like all effective insurgent groups, knows how to win hearts and minds.

The takeaway is that the war in Afghanistan can’t be won. But it need not be lost either, so long as the option remains of pursuing a negotiated end to the war. Admittedly, this makes for the tallest of orders; the Taliban’s battlefield successes give it little incentive to stop fighting.

And yet, pursuing reconciliation is the only option, short of a complete US military withdrawal from Afghanistan – a drastic move that would fulfill one of the Taliban’s preconditions for peace talks, but could also lead to spectacular Taliban battlefield gains and increase the possibility that international terrorists would once again use Afghanistan as a base to plan attacks. This is why withdrawal is likely a non-starter for Washington. Reconciliation must be Plan A, B, and C.

Reconciliation won’t come easily or quickly, but it’s still worth pursuing. Recall how Colombia, after decades of insurgency and a difficult negotiation process, finally reached a deal last year (albeit a fragile one) to end its long-running conflict.

Big battlefield triumphs against the Taliban, despite what the White House suggests, aren’t prerequisites for launching a reconciliation process. What’s needed instead is a patient, sustained diplomatic strategy that addresses key questions: What will it take to get the Taliban talking to Kabul? What type of concessions would Kabul be willing to make? Should Washington negotiate directly with the Taliban? Who else should be involved?

Read more: Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the US Join hands to fight Daesh in the region

Unfortunately, such a strategy is best led by a State Department sidelined by an administration seemingly bent on outsourcing Afghanistan policy to the military (the White House reportedly wants the Pentagon to make final troop number decisions). The risk of a securitized Afghanistan policy is that military strategy will dominate policy discussions and leave critical considerations about reconciliation in the lurch.

President Trump says he wants to start winning again in Afghanistan. However, he’s better off thinking about negotiating than winning. As a businessman who relishes the art of the deal, that shouldn’t be a hard sell. Accordingly, the president should ensure that his Afghanistan policy includes a reconciliation strategy, overseen by diplomats, that maps out a political plan for how Kabul – with US assistance – can pursue a deal with the Taliban.

Reconciliation won’t come easily or quickly, but it’s still worth pursuing. Recall how Colombia, after decades of insurgency and a difficult negotiation process, finally reached a deal last year (albeit a fragile one) to end its long-running conflict.

The Colombia model offers inspiration for Afghanistan – and a more hopeful analogy than Vietnam.

Michael Kugelman is deputy director and senior associate for South Asia with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. This article was first published on CNN.com and has been reproduced with permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, where he is responsible for research, programming, and publications on the region. His main specialty is Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan and U.S. relations with each of them. Mr. Kugelman writes monthly columns for Foreign Policy’s South Asia Channel and monthly commentaries for War on the Rocks. He also contributes regular pieces to the Wall Street Journal’s Think Tank blog. He has published op-eds and commentaries in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Politico, CNN.com, Bloomberg View, The Diplomat, Al Jazeera, and The National Interest, among others. He has been interviewed by numerous major media outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times, Guardian, Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic, BBC, CNN, NPR, and Voice of America. He has also produced a number of longer publications on South Asia, including the edited volumes Pakistan’s Interminable Energy Crisis: Is There Any Way Out? (Wilson Center, 2015), Pakistan’s Runaway Urbanization: What Can Be Done? (Wilson Center, 2014), and India’s Contemporary Security Challenges (Wilson Center, 2013). He has published policy briefs, journal articles, and book chapters on issues ranging from Pakistani youth and social media to India’s energy security strategy and transboundary water management in South Asia.

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