U.S. representative Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and Taliban representative Abdul Ghani Baradar (right) sign the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan in Doha, Qatar on February 29, 2020. CREDIT: <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_in_Afghanistan_(2001–present)#/media/File:Secretary_Pompeo_Participates_in_a_Signing_Ceremony_in_Doha_(49601220548).jpg">U.S. Department of State/Public Domain</a>
U.S. representative Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and Taliban representative Abdul Ghani Baradar (right) sign the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan in Doha, Qatar on February 29, 2020. CREDIT: U.S. Department of State/Public Domain

The U.S.-Taliban Agreement & the Future of Afghanistan, with Jonathan Cristol

Mar 10, 2020

On February 29, the United States and the Taliban reached an agreement that could potentially end the longest-running war in American history. Jonathan Cristol, author of "The United States and the Taliban before and after 9/11," discusses the specifics of the deal, the role of the Afghan government, women's rights, and how this all fits into the worldview of the Trump administration.

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to Global Ethics Weekly. I'm Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council in New York City.

This week I'm speaking with Jonathan Cristol. Jonathan is a research fellow in the Levermore Global Scholars program at Adelphi University and a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College.

Jonathan is also the author of The United States and the Taliban before and after 9/11, so I asked him back to speak about the February 29 agreement, which could end 18 years of conflict in Afghanistan. We discussed the specifics of the deal, the role of the Afghan government, women's rights, and how this all fits into the worldview of the Trump administration.

As you'll hear, this our fourth podcast on U.S.-Taliban relations. You can find the rest, and more from Jonathan, on carnegiecouncil.org.

One note: We recorded this on the morning of Monday, March 9 before some news came out about Afghan President Ashraf Ghani releasing Taliban prisoners. Check the transcript below for a link to the story on Reuters and Jonathan's quick reaction.

But for now, here's my talk with Jonathan Cristol.

Jonathan, thank you so much for coming in today.

JONATHAN CRISTOL: Thanks for having me.

ALEX WOODSON: This will be our fourth official podcast about the U.S.-Taliban negotiations. We talked last September. I had to jog my memory about this episode, when Trump tweeted that they were going to have secret talks at Camp David, but those were off because the Taliban killed a U.S. service member. That seems like a very long time ago.

Now we're into early March. February 29 in Doha an agreement was reached between the Taliban and the United States. This has been reported in a few places, but can you just give us the basics of this deal as you understand it?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: I think it is fair to call it an agreement. I have seen other people report that it's really an agreement to further negotiate, but my view is, in some sense, all agreements are agreements to keep talking. You don't have an agreement and then sit blankly looking at the wall or doing nothing.

This is giving parameters whereby the United States will withdraw from Afghanistan over time. In exchange, the Taliban will prevent al-Qaeda or terrorist groups from threatening the United States or its allies from within its territory. That's key point number one.

The Afghan government will agree to release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners by March 10, which is the day after we are recording this podcast, and the Taliban will release up to 1,000 prisoners in exchange. It's worth pointing out that "up to 5,000" could be one, and it's also worth pointing that as of now—and based on the time difference, we are just a few hours out—they have released zero in part because the Afghan government was not involved in these talks at all. [Editor's note: Several hours after this podcast was recorded on March 9, Reuters reported: "Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will issue a decree for at least 1,000 Taliban prisoners to be released this week." Cristol responded: "It is worth noting that Ghani is releasing older, low-risk prisoners and he could be doing so either under explicit pressure from the United States or in a bid to maintain his relevance to the United States."]

This agreement also states that the Taliban would not attack the United States on the way out. Whether the United States maintains any sort of presence there is a little bit of a gray area. One thing that I found really interesting about the agreement is this one clause. It actually says that the Taliban will agree "not to issue passports or visas or consular status" or whatever to anyone who might be planning an attack against the United States or a member of a terrorist group. That's not the exact wording, but that's basically the point.

No one has really picked up on this as far as I can tell, but in an agreement that is extremely carefully worded so as not to imply that the United States is recognizing the Taliban as the legitimate government—it refers to the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban" every time it appears. Yet you have this clause that implies that at a certain point in the future the Taliban will be in a position to issue visas and passports because they are not now.

The fact that we included this—I don't know who pushed for that to be included, but the fact that we agreed for it to be included implies that we realize, I think correctly, that at some point the Taliban will be in charge, and we are trying to make sure that when they are, they don't invite in or in any way assist or aid terrorist groups with whom we are concerned. I thought that was an interesting section of the agreement.

Of course, the agreement itself is only four pages long anyway. It's not some sort of detailed report. We saw reporting just yesterday that there are secret annexes that members of Congress have seen that are classified and that apparently might detail how the United States and the Taliban coordinate a U.S. withdrawal, meaning: What is the line of communication? How do we tell them where we're going to be so that they don't attack us?

I think the other key point about this is, in addition to not including the Afghan government in the talks, it doesn't say anything about the Taliban attacking the Afghan government or Afghan military targets. It's really an agreement between the United States and the Taliban. It's sort of remarkable and depressing, but perhaps necessary.

ALEX WOODSON: Since this agreement was signed on February 29, there has been quite a bit of violence in Afghanistan, correct?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: There have been quite a few attacks. Just today at the dueling inaugurations of Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, you had two explosions outside Ashraf Ghani's inauguration.

At first it seemed as though, Oh, the Taliban aren't even going to abide by the agreement with the United States. That's of course possible. But if we remember, they haven't said anything about attacks on Afghan government targets, so the idea that the Taliban were ever going to renounce violence and stop violent attacks, I think, is almost laughable. If it does turn out that they are attacking U.S. targets, my suspicion is that if it's nothing dramatic, the administration will write it off as, "Oh, that's some unit that didn't get the message." And it may or may not even be true, but I think that our tolerance for absorbing attacks on the way out is going to be higher than one might like.

ALEX WOODSON: That could be because the narrative that the American government wants to push is that we ended the war, and anything that happens between now and when Americans finally do pull out, they don't want that to pull us back into the war. Would that be a fair assessment?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: I think that's right.

It's also worth saying that it doesn't actually make sense for the Taliban to attack U.S. targets at the moment because they've got us right where they want us. They know that Trump wants to withdraw, they know they just signed an agreement that probably heavily favors them, they know that we're effectively selling out Kabul. So what do they gain by intentionally attacking the U.S. military?

It is possible that just the idea of seeing unprotected American targets is so tempting to some people, but in general I think they're rational and have found a pretty effective strategy. So I don't think they have a real incentive to do it because the know as long as they don't, we will be gone soon enough.

What they might be doing now that we could be seeing is they're testing: "How serious are the Americans? If we keep attacking Afghan central government targets, are they going to do anything? Because if they're not, well, this is working out pretty well. Let's leave the Americans alone as they get out."

ALEX WOODSON: As you said a couple of minutes ago, there were dueling inaugurations in Kabul earlier today, March 9. It would require a whole different podcast to go over that situation, but if you could just give a quick rundown of what that situation is, I think that would be helpful.

JONATHAN CRISTOL: In the previous Afghan government you had Ashraf Ghani as the president and Abdullah Abdullah in an extra-constitutional title that effectively made it more or less what you have seen sometimes in Israel, where you have tense coalition partners who swap off the prime minister-ship. That's not exactly what you have in Afghanistan because they created this other job, but you have two people in charge who switch off on certain things.

Since Hamid Karzai's departure—I don't mean from Earth but from office—these are the two main figures. Abdullah Abdullah, even when Hamid Karzai was in power, was a major figure, and in the most recent election the results have been disputed as to who won that election. It's one of those two. Neither of them has conceded. Both of them say that they are the president, and they were both sworn in today.

What does that mean for Afghanistan? What in any other case would clearly be the number-one political story, almost an unimaginably weird situation, in this case is not the biggest story in Afghanistan because the U.S.-Taliban talks and agreement don't help anyone in this regard, and that's the dominant headline going on about this in the region. Between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, both of whom have decent relationships with the United States, it remains to be seen how that gets worked out.

Once they see what the United States is really going to do—if the United States is pulling out entirely—I think they will have to come together in a way similar to the last go-round. It's really a game of chicken, and we'll see who blinks first.

ALEX WOODSON: With this instability in the Afghan government, as you said, the Taliban and the United States have just been negotiating with each other and not with the Afghan government.

JONATHAN CRISTOL: It's instability, but it's the same two people who have been there for a while. We know how they work together—or not work together, as the case may be—so you're not talking about new figures on the scene with tremendous uncertainty where no one knows who they are, what they're going to do, or what they're capable of vis-à-vis each other. It's not necessarily stable, but it's the most stable sort of instability that one could imagine in this situation.

But part of the agreement is that after this prisoner exchange, the Taliban will then negotiate with the Afghan government. So who is the Afghan government? These dueling inaugurations of the presidents is at the very top. Yes, they have their parties and people, but again these are the same two power structures that have been dueling for quite a few years.

I don't think the Taliban frankly much care one way or the other, but this is going to be the major source of contention in the internal Afghan politics of how do they deal with the Taliban, how do they deal with the United States, and how do they deal with Pakistan and India and all these things. These things all branch out from this going on, but it is understandable that there would be some type of instability when you're totally reliant on the United States, the United States isn't telling you anything, the United States is telling your enemy much more than they're telling you, and doesn't seem to really care much one way or the other what it is you want or what your interests are.

ALEX WOODSON: With all this in mind, what would negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government—in whatever form it is—look like? What does the Afghan government want that has not come through in these negotiations so far?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: If negotiations ever happen between the Taliban and the central government in a real, serious, formal way, it's almost unimaginable to me that there would be a genuine compromise.

The Taliban now are different than the Taliban in the 1990s, but as we have talked about here and as I have written, the United States and many other actors have negotiated with the Taliban for a long time, and the Taliban view on negotiations and on democracy is fairly clear. It's an oversimplification to say that they're anti-democracy. What the Taliban have said in the past is, "Oh, we're pro-democracy, and democracy means that when you have the majority you have the total power over everything." They have more or less said that: "You control everything, and everyone has to fall in line." They say it in harsher terms than that.

I think their view is, "Well, if we can"—and frankly, they're not the only actors in the world who have views like this—"take over, we can limit the people who vote, we can have elections. We'll win the elections. Now we're legitimate, and now we're in charge." Most states have some sort of elections. North Korea has elections: You've got one option, and you have to vote. But why do states bother to do this? It gives some legitimacy internally and externally.

I think the Taliban would be perfectly happy to reach an agreement with the government whereby there is some sort of election, if it's an election that they know they're going to win and where they know they'll have the entirety of power in the government.

If I were Mullah Baradar, the Taliban lead negotiator, I don't know why I would agree to this. The Taliban are doing really well. The Taliban are gaining more and more territory, more than they have had since not long after the war began practically a generation ago. That's with the United States there. They're going to do even better when we're gone, so I'm not sure why it is they would negotiate.

I think there are negotiations that are possible, but really the Taliban will be negotiating from a position of strength, and maybe it will be worth it to the Taliban to reach some sort of agreement with the central government that allows for relaxed cultural restrictions or educational restrictions in Kabul. There is sort of one rule that applies in Kabul and one rule that applies externally with nominal Taliban control over Kabul and total Taliban control over the rest of the country. I'm not sure frankly how long that would hold.

But the Taliban said in the 1990s that over time that was their plan, not that they would give power in Kabul to anyone else, but that they were going to relax social controls and some of the repression inside Kabul because they recognized that that might not be sustainable, and they realized it was going to be bad for them in terms of public perception internationally.

It was not exactly the same situation then, but they have shown a little bit of flexibility, but I don't think to the point that anyone is going to be comfortable with it, especially in the short term. I think there are very, very, very limited items on which Kabul and the Taliban have any realistic hope of reaching a successful negotiation—maybe a successful negotiation but not one that lasts for the long run. We have to realize that the Taliban have won here.

ALEX WOODSON: You said that the Taliban are different than they were in the 1990s. How are they different, and if they do take control of a large part of Afghanistan, how would that be different than how it looked in the 1990s?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: First of all, it's worth mentioning that we have more insight into their functioning in the 1990s, at least out of government, because we've seen the declassified documents, and we know about that then in a way that we might not now. So it's possible that the differences are not as stark as I might think they are or anyone might think they are only because we don't know yet, and there hasn't been as much time.

The Taliban in the 1990s wanted to be more or less a normal state. I don't mean internally, although as I've said to you I think internally they're not radically different than Saudi Arabia, at least Saudi Arabia pre-Mohammed Bin Salman. They wanted a good relationship with the United States, they wanted to be treated as a normal state, and they had their own way of governing.

They weren't exactly a terrorist group. It's almost hard to make the case that they were a terrorist group in the 1990s. I think they were really a rebel army fighting a civil war in a way that other rebel armies have fought.

Over the last not quite 20 years I think they became more of a traditional terrorist group—blowing up civilian targets; multiple factions with some competing interests that were doing more traditional terrorist activities. However, it could easily be that over the last couple of years, as they have achieved greater territorial gains and have begun to more or less operate like a state—maybe not to the extent that they were in the 1990s—there might be a return to the normalcy of the Taliban as a rebel army and not as a terrorist group. That said, we saw explosions just today.

I think it is possible that they will return to a brutally repressive rebel army/quasi-government potentially than a government. The thing is, as far as the United States is concerned—and this is one thing I think we get right in the agreement—they're not a threat to us. They have never been a threat to us directly. They don't care about us. And they're not a terrorist group the way Americans often think of a terrorist group. By that I mean someone who is going to blow them up. That's how Americans think of it. If they're not just going to blow up Americans anywhere, then we don't really give them too much thought.

At a certain point, when you become the government, blowing up your own citizens doesn't work with that, at least in terms of suicide bombs and those kinds of attacks. That doesn't make sense in a governing context. Yes, you might have public executions, you might lock people up for all sorts of things, you might institute brutal social control. But you're probably not going to suicide-bomb your own people if you're making the claim that they're your people.

Iran guns down protestors. They don't send suicide bombs into crowds. They show that there is a state authority that is trying to keep people under control. They don't have random Schmoes walk into a building and blow themselves up. It's not what states do. So as the Taliban become more of a state I expect we won't see that kind of violence; we'll just see state violence, which is different.

ALEX WOODSON: You were talking earlier about different rules for Kabul than for the rest of Afghanistan as being part of some agreement or Taliban government. Does that refer to women's rights—girls being allowed to go to school? Women being able to work?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: In the 1990s that was what they were talking about, and they said to American negotiators: "Look, we are doing this now" in terms of not allowing women out of the home and not allowing women to work in professions—actually they said, "We would allow this if there were these single-sex institutions, but since there aren't, they can't do these things."

But they also said more or less: "We're doing this to establish our control over the country. Once we have firmly established control, we recognize that there are going to be differences in major cities and rural areas," effectively. I'm not trying to compare the United States to Afghanistan, I'm not comparing the Trump administration to the Taliban either, but we see this in our country and in many countries. There are cultural differences in terms of permissiveness and behavior that we see here in New York City, and what you might see in rural America. Those differences are not unique to Afghanistan. They might be more extreme, but the premise of that is not entirely unique.

Is it possible that the Taliban would agree? There are two possibilities: They could reach some sort of agreement on that and then immediately violate that agreement once the United States is out, or it could be that they reach some sort of compromise about various freedoms inside Kabul versus outside.

The problem with that, on its face, is that that requires not only negotiation with the Afghan government, but it also requires the Afghan government to treat it as a conditional surrender. I don't think the Afghan government is going to treat it as a conditional surrender, because I think that's what it would look like.

Ironically, I think the United States is quasi-negotiating its own unconditional surrender. That's easier for us because we can leave. The Afghan government can't, and the people can't.

ALEX WOODSON: Was women's rights part of these negotiations at all? Did that come up at all, or did the United States just realize, "This probably isn't going to go anywhere, so we'll leave it off"?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: Women's rights have come up in the ongoing negotiations. There hasn't been any agreement about women's rights. When I say they have been brought up—which I am quite sure of—I don't know if there is anything more to say than that. It has been brought up, and it hasn't gone anywhere. The Taliban have been willing to sit in a room at a table with women, but that has always been the case to one degree or another.

As I think we have mentioned and as I write in my book, almost 20 years ago, when I met the Taliban envoy to the United States, there were women in the room. That's not an achievement. But it's not part of the deal. It's not an explicit part of further negotiations. And if it is in the secret annexes, it's probably not because the United States has agreed to anything so great, otherwise it probably wouldn't be secret.

ALEX WOODSON: I'm asking in part because this is a question on a survey that is going around that our U.S. Global Engagement director, Nikolas Gvosdev, has put out. Maybe you took the survey; I don't know. The survey asked, "Would you accept an agreement with the Taliban that didn't include women's rights?" Results were mixed. A little more said it would be okay to accept that agreement as the United States, if it means an end to the war in Afghanistan.

JONATHAN CRISTOL: I think we have to realize that our willingness to accept that is barely—if at all—relevant because the Taliban are at some point going to take over the rest of that country. Whether they exert total control inside Kabul or not is perhaps the only question, but I would really frame it as the timeline for that.

When it comes to, "Is it better that we reach an agreement with them on women's rights that is then violated, or is it better to just leave it out?" I feel like that's almost a philosophical question about the nature of truth.

ALEX WOODSON: I think it is kind of a philosophical question, just to understand how people think about the United States and foreign policy and American values.

JONATHAN CRISTOL: My view on this—which we have discussed before, but I feel even more strongly about it, but I think I have some more specific views now—is that we are not in a position to push the women's rights agenda. I don't say that as a negative thing. There should be a women's rights agenda, but we're not in a position to reach an enforceable agreement on that because the Taliban know that when we are out we are not going to reenter Afghanistan.

Is there something that will cause us to reenter in the future? Probably, but it's not going to be over women's rights. That would be if another major terrorist attack did originate from inside the territory of Afghanistan. But they're not idiots. They know that. So they know we're not going to go back in over that, and frankly I don't think the majority of American people would support that either.

My view on this is that we have to accept that we're not going to get anything on women's rights and do what we can do. And what we can do—but we're not going to do, and that's even more evident to me than ever before—is work with our allies out of Afghanistan and our partners inside Afghanistan to offer asylum and opportunities for people who are worried about the Taliban killing them to leave that country. Not everyone will take us up on that offer, but that's what we can do.

We cannot govern that country. We cannot occupy that country in a realistic way. But what we can do is help the people who have already been helped by us. It's easy to say, "U.S. invasions and occupation are always bad." In a strategic sense that could be true in the post-World War II era. But that does not mean that they are bad for everyone, and it doesn't mean that real gains haven't been made.

We owe something to those people. I do think the United States has to withdraw, and if it means negotiating some sort of ridiculous face-saving agreement—that frankly I find barely face-saving at all—then fine. So be it. I'm not opposed to that.

But we should be realistic about what we're doing, that we are talking about a negotiated withdrawal that is effectively an unconditional surrender. The one condition that we're in a position to impose—and it's not even really impose; it frankly benefits everyone, it benefits the Taliban too—is to help people get out. Will that be in some ways a very long term catastrophe for the country if there is tremendous brain drain out? Probably. But that ship has sailed. I think it's almost more traditionally colonialist to think: Well, we can't bring these people out. We can't help them because who else will help this society in the distant future to regain its footing other than these Western-educated people who have worked with America and NATO? No. We have to think about the people and our debt to them at this point, before we think of our debt to the political entity known as Afghanistan.

The reality is that this administration is not going to do that. That's why I find it deeply upsetting and troublesome that while we are insisting on unconditional surrender from Iran and North Korea we ourselves are throwing up our hands, and all we're really asking is not to be shot in the back on the way out. That's better than being shot in the back on the way out; don't get me wrong. But when the president claims a great victory, 38 percent of America will think we achieved a great victory and probably will really believe it.

ALEX WOODSON: What about this agreement makes it a Trump administration-type agreement, or is there anything that makes it like a Trump agreement? In the U.S. Global Engagement Program, we talk about Trump's foreign policy and transactionalism, things like that, but this situation has been going on for so long that it might have also just reached its endpoint in 2020 no matter who the president is.

JONATHAN CRISTOL: That's a good question.

If we think about Trump's foreign policy, I would say there is this transactional side of it, but then there's also the undoing-Obama side of it—and prior, but Obama more than anyone else. I think that if the Trump administration thinks that we're going to gain something, then they're probably sorely mistaken. It's a very good question that I had not thought about until you asked.

If there are secret annexes, who knows what's in them? Or maybe in the back of someone's mind there is this idea that, Well, once the Taliban take over, we want to be in a position — because we know even more than 20 years ago that Afghanistan has a tremendous amount of natural resources, not oil, but resources that help things like cellphones and things like that function. I'm not a geologist, nor am I a computer scientist, but there are valuable natural resources, and the United States might want to be in a position to have a good trading relationship with them. The Taliban have always wanted that kind of relationship with the United States. But I think if Trump is thinking that, it's only because someone on his team has sold him on that idea. I think that's way, way down the line because you don't have infrastructure to do that anyway.

I think it's the undoing of the Obama and to a lesser extent the George W. Bush administrations' work that I think is going on here. That's one element of it, where: "Obama said he was going to get out but didn't. Now I'm going to do it no matter what the cost."

The thing is that Trump is right that we should get out. But where I differ from some other scholars who think we should withdraw entirely and not be involved—

By the way, most of those people—I'm not naming names—would agree with me on the immigration part, that this is tied to immigration policy. I don't really know anyone who thinks we shouldn't help people get out who worked with us and whose lives were made better.

But I am not for a withdrawal of the United States from the Middle East and Central Asia. I am for a withdrawal from places where we are not wanted and where we are not achieving any good. I think that remaining in Qatar, in Bahrain, and in Kuwait makes strategic sense, being forward-deployed so that in the event there is a reconstituted al-Qaeda—and al-Qaeda has never gone entirely away—or some major reason to go back in a limited, targeted way, not to occupy the country, we're there to do it. I also think that acting as a tripwire in the region and in general—like on the Korean Peninsula—helps us as much as it helps our defense partners and our formal allies. So I don't think we should withdraw entirely.

We have minimal achievements in Afghanistan, and at what cost? So I think Trump's instinct to withdraw is correct. I just think that when you combine that with his xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism, and general malevolence it makes it hard to support exactly what he is doing. I would be in favor of it if it were someone else doing it and paired with a change in other policies. So I hope it gets dragged out, to be honest.

ALEX WOODSON: We should mention Zalmay Khalilzad as well, who was the lead negotiator for the United States. You have spoken highly of him in the past. The fact that he's negotiating on behalf of Trump—would he have been negotiating on behalf of a Democratic president as well, or was he picked for Trumpian purposes?

JONATHAN CRISTOL: It's hard to imagine a better person than Zalmay Khalilzad under any administration. But Zalmay Khalilzad is not making policy. He is aware of what Trump's view is and is trying to get the best deal possible. He knows much more than I do about these issues. Everything I have said here I think he is very well aware of. I don't think that he or people in the Defense or State Department are under any illusions about what will happen after the United States leaves.

I think there is a difference of opinion about whether it's worth it or not, but I think he has been given an impossible job and left enough wiggle room—I'm not saying he has done this intentionally—in that agreement that if a new administration took over, they could not violate the agreement and pair it with additional policies that would have a more ethical withdrawal.

What we need to do is withdraw with honor. We could have an honorable withdrawal that stays true to pre-Trump "American values." I think there is an opening to do that. Nothing in this agreement prevents that from happening. So it's really about the political will of the administration. I think this is a deal that, while it has some specifics, is loose enough that it could be dragged out into the next administration while also being so loose that it could completely fall apart in the next 24 hours. We don't know what will happen.

It is out of character for me to have any good news to share, and I don't have any good news to share, so I'll stay in character. The good news about this agreement is not to do with the agreement per se. But I always think it's better to be talking than not talking. And I think it's good that the U.S. president—I don't think it's great that it's Trump—spoke directly to the Taliban leader. I'm not opposed to that. A lot of people don't like this because they think it legitimizes be it him or Kim Jong-un or whoever. I don't think these people care about whether we think they're legitimate.

So I'm always in favor of talking, and I think having lines of communication at high levels that are open, an ongoing constant negotiation, builds rapport even with repressive dictatorships, repressive theocracies, or however you want to think about them. I think that has real value. We can see that, for example, with the Iran Nuclear Deal, the rapport that John Kerry and Javad Zarif built up, the teams that worked together for a long time, and when U.S. naval ships strayed into Iranian waters—which we admitted we did; sometimes Iran makes up stuff like that, but sometimes we do make mistakes—we were able to get the U.S. sailors back, more or less without incident. These things can pay off.

I think keeping the dialogue going so that we're not demonizing each other and are able to work together on areas of mutual interest is important. I think it's not nothing, but it's also not everything. But it can be done without actually selling out the Afghan people. I'm sorry I keep beating the same drum.

ALEX WOODSON: No, it's very important.

JONATHAN CRISTOL: But that's what makes it so unfortunate because you have a set of policies and a process that I think in general—or let's say we don't have policies; it's an instinct and a desire to do something that I think needs to be done, a process that I think is the right process with the right people in the right place with the Qataris as mediators, which they're very good at as being neutral hosts, and could achieve the best possible outcome—not a great outcome—for all involved if it were paired with U.S. domestic policies and with an administration that had not alienated our allies. I'm not suggesting the United States take in every Afghan asylum-seeker coming our way, but that we work with allies and partners to help resettle people in a range of places.

Unfortunately, it's just that this particular administration doesn't have the desire to do it, doesn't have the goodwill with other partners, and doesn't seem to have the desire or bandwidth to manage a process like that. But I think the process of negotiation is important, almost regardless of outcome, because the Taliban aren't going anywhere. While the United States might be leaving Afghanistan, I would be astounded if we leave the United States Central Command region—which is a bit removed; we have to fly over Pakistan to get there from the Persian Gulf. But we're not really going anywhere.

But the Taliban live there and we don't. They know that, and we seem to have forgotten that. If it took Trump to wake us up from that, it still wasn't worth having Trump in office, and he will find a way to bungle it probably in ways that I haven't even thought of yet. But having a rethink about the U.S. approach in the region I think is worthwhile.

ALEX WOODSON: Thank you very much. I'm sure there will be a lot more news to come.

JONATHAN CRISTOL: Unfortunately, I think you're right. Thank you for having me.

You may also like

CREDIT: 2020 <a href=https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfpvqqGDGeLgoWIH_1EGK4N5vdof8jru7wT33gEJBGJs0mEmQ/viewform>survey of attitudes</a>, U.S. Global Engagement program. Map provided by <a href=https://pixabay.com/photos/blur-close-up-continent-exploration-1869546/>Pixabay (CC)</a>.

MAR 9, 2020 Article

What Do Americans Think . . .

The U.S. Global Engagement program at Carnegie Council has been conducting a survey of attitudes about U.S. foreign policy with an eye to ...

President Trump delivers remarks on Jan. 8, 2020 at the White House. <a href=https://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse/49351700228/>Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian/Public Domain</a>.

JAN 13, 2020 Article

A Parting of Values: America First versus Transactionalism

"The existing divide in American foreign policy discourse has been the extent to which the U.S. must actively propagate and spread its values, or ...

President Trump at the 2017 UN General Assembly. CREDIT: <a href=https://www.flickr.com/photos/un_photo/37501289212/>UN Photo/Ariana Lindquist (CC)</a>.

SEP 9, 2019 Article

Transactionalism and U.S. Foreign Aid

A draft of a new presidential directive on American foreign aid suggests that transactionalism will shift from being a rhetorical device to an actual defining ...