Taliban rebels and the United States are about to reach an agreement to end their conflict. But the deal would not bring peace; the Trump administration is letting itself be too blinded by its reelection strategy.
If U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is to be believed, then the U.S. and the Afghan Taliban are soon to reach an agreement that would initiate the withdrawal of troops, after 18 years of military presence. The intervention in the Hindu Kush, which began after the Sept. 2001 terrorist attacks, is often described as America’s longest war. But the war will not end with a withdrawal. What Khalilzad has negotiated during nine rounds of talks over the last year is just window dressing, a peace agreement without peace.
The Pressure of the Electoral Calendar
With this deal, the Americans would not meet any of their original goals. In the draft contract, the Taliban does not promise to lay down their weapons, nor do they recognize the new state system created since 2001, which entails regular elections and wide-ranging rights for women. The only meaningful concession that the Islamists make, at least on paper, is the assurance that they will not tolerate any new hotbeds of terrorism in the areas under their control. This has significant symbolic meaning for Washington, because, at one time, the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York by suicide bombers from al-Qaida was planned from Afghan soil. But whoever considers how the Taliban, even then, denied any complicity with al-Qaida and how they still consider terrorism against innocent civilians to be a legitimate mode of warfare will have little faith in such assurances.
How could it happen that American negotiators have come to such an inequitable agreement? It cannot be because of the military situation. Afghanistan is no second Vietnam; it is not a conflict with intolerable bloodshed that incites protests back at home. This year, 19 Americans have died in that war zone, far fewer than during the offensives under President Obama, a decade ago. The war is understandably unpopular, but according to polls, the proportion of those who consider it to be senseless has actually gone down in recent years.
The driving force behind the withdrawal plans is President Trump, who several years ago called the military operations in Afghanistan a complete waste and campaigned under the promise to end America’s “endless” war. As president, he did initially concede a slight increase in U.S. military presence in the Hindu Kush. But last December, his patience finally seemed to be up: It was only after long cajoling from his advisors and the resignation of his secretary of defense in protest that he refrained from mandating complete withdrawal within just a few months. Whoever strives so obviously toward that goal has bad cards to begin with in negotiation poker. The Taliban were not oblivious to the fact that the great “deal maker” in the White House wanted withdrawal, no matter what. They have no reason to make significant concessions for it.
A Weak Negotiating Position
The U.S. has not yet been able to climb out of this weak negotiating position. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently announced, quite openly, that Trump had tasked him with bringing home the troops before the next elections. Suddenly, the electoral calendar is more important than the goals for which the conflict was once fought, with significant personnel involvement. The hurry— according to the hearing, Trump demanded a draft contract by Sept. 1—forced the negotiators to drop one demand after another. For this reason, the deal apparently does not provide for a cease-fire or guarantee that the Taliban will engage in peace talks with the elected government in Kabul.
On the contrary: The military extremists have made it clear they will not sit at the same table as the “puppet regime” in Kabul. The Taliban’s calculus is easy to recognize. Their negotiators have just wrung from the Americans an agreement to withdraw 5,000 to 14,000 soldiers in a first wave and to close five military bases. The further the withdrawal proceeds—the NATO allies would also reduce their presence, in parallel—the freer range the Taliban will have to extend their power throughout the whole country. They have never renounced their old aim to reclaim the capital, after having been driven out 18 years ago. Not even during the concluding negotiations did they even pretend to be interested in peace. The massive attack on the city of Kunduz over the weekend and a disastrous car bombing in Kabul on Monday attest to their intent to force a decision with violence.
The Threat of a Relapse
It is extremely shortsighted of the Trump administration that it will not recognize this and is solely focused on the next elections. Thus, it unnecessarily jeopardizes everything that has been achieved in Afghanistan since 2001. The country may not be a democracy; that goal was unrealistic from the start. But unlike during the time of the Taliban’s rule, millions of young boys and especially girls receive an education. In the areas outside of Taliban control, an entire generation of young Afghans has grown up able to live life with significant freedoms and without the often-nonsensical decrees of the narrow-minded jihadists. It is understandable that Washington wants to cast off the burden of the politics of rebuilding. But an overly hasty withdrawal threatens to elicit what the U.S. has already experienced, after its imprudent withdrawal from Iraq in 201—that country’s relapse into complete chaos and the strengthening of extremist forces, which sooner or later will also become a direct threat to the rest of the world.