It sounded noble in theory: the president announcing last week that he was ending America’s longest-running war and bringing home the troops whose mission on Afghan soil had grown ever murkier.
In practice, the promise already seems empty. Signing an “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” with the Taliban — even with the bells and whistles of an actual peace treaty signing — does not make it so. In the days since President Trump’s deal with the Taliban, as the United States retreats from Afghanistan, violence has spiked in the country, some of which has involved US forces. And there is reason for skepticism about an agreement reached with a non-state actor and without the participation of officials of the Afghan government, who almost immediately announced their opposition to a key provision.
As much as most Americans want an end to a war that has lasted nearly two decades and claimed the lives of more than 3,500 US and allied troops, this purported agreement needs to be far more than an election year photo-op.
The pact signed last Saturday between US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad and his Taliban counterpart provides for an immediate reduction of US troops, from the current 12,000 to 8,600, within 135 days — a reduction Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said has already begun. If the agreement holds, all US troops could be gone within the next 14 months.
In return, the United States gets guarantees from the Taliban that it will take steps “to prevent any group or individual, including al-Qa’ida, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”
The Taliban has committed not to attack US or allied forces during that withdrawal but made no such commitment to Afghan government troops or even Afghan civilians. In fact, Afghan troops in Helmand province came under attack by Taliban fighters before the ink was dry on the US agreement, and US forces responded with an airstrike on Wednesday. The Taliban was also blamed for a series of kidnappings in Wardak Province that included relatives of government employees and was presumably aimed at strengthening their bargaining position in upcoming talks with Afghan officials.
And while the agreement says that the United States is “committed to start immediately to work with all relevant sides on a plan to expeditiously release combat and political prisoners as a confidence-building measure” — some 5,000 Taliban prisoners — Afghan president Ashraf Ghani said that’s a question for future negotiations, not this one. Yet Taliban leaders have said a prisoner exchange is a requirement for sitting down with the Afghan government.
Ghani, of course, was not at the table for the “peace” deal last week, but the US-Taliban agreement is predicated on the resumption of “intra-Afghan” negotiations by March 10.
For its part, the Afghan government remains fractured and dysfunctional, Ghani’s 2019 election disputed, and his ability to bring the nation’s rival ethnic and tribal factions under one umbrella more aspirational than fact.
And while Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar may have been the one to put his name on the dotted line, there are no guarantees that the estimated 60,000 fighters who subscribe to the Taliban’s ideology will fall in lockstep behind any agreement.
This is at the core of its being a terrorist organization, supported in large part by the opium trade, not a disciplined force with a well-defined hierarchy — again, another difficulty posed in signing an agreement with a non-state actor.
The United States proposes to use the carrot of removing sanctions against the Taliban, if indeed it lives up to its end of the bargain, along with “economic cooperation for reconstruction” with any new unified Afghan government.
There are also no guarantees in the agreement for assuring the human rights of those the Taliban has long targeted, especially the women of Afghanistan, who suffered grievously during the dark days of the 1990s and continue to be treated as less than citizens in much of the country. That is apparently no longer a US concern, and that, down the road, may well be a reason for history to judge us unfavorably.
The war-weary people of Afghanistan deserve a peace that generations of them have never known. Americans need assurance that an abandonment of Afghanistan will not allow it to once again become a breeding ground for international terrorism. This agreement, while built on an exceedingly shaky foundation, could be a start down that rocky path, but not without a deeper commitment than an election-year stunt.
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