You may not have noticed, but the Trump administration is racing to reach a peace agreement with the Taliban, the Islamic militants who once sheltered terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and have been battling U.S. troops since 2001.
As the latest round of closed-door talks wraps up in Qatar, a potential deal appears in sight — and it doesn’t look pretty.
By all accounts, the current draft includes the withdrawal of about 5,400 U.S. troops in exchange for a Taliban pledge to cut ties with Al Qaeda. It doesn’t require the fundamentalists to support democratic elections or guarantee the hard-won rights of Afghan girls and women.
Those big issues would be left for later talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed government of Ashraf Ghani. Until now the Taliban has refused such talks, dismissing the Kabul government as an illegitimate “puppet regime.”
And yet, the proposed pact may be the only way for the United States to withdraw from a grinding war it has been unable to win. Whether it would produce a lasting peace is far less certain.
After 18 years, more than 2,400 U.S. military dead and 20,000 wounded (plus more than 1,100 NATO troops killed), the Taliban appears to have outlasted us.
U.S. commanders call the war a stalemate. But that’s optimistic. Pentagon figures show that the Taliban has increased the percentage of the Afghan population under their control — at least, that’s what they showed until the Trump administration stopped releasing the statistics.
Trump has long denounced the war as a waste of blood and treasure. In his 2016 campaign, he promised to withdraw all U.S. troops by the end of his first term, 16 months from now.
Leading Democrats don’t want to continue either. Of the five top Democratic candidates for president, four have promised to withdraw U.S. troops as soon as possible. Joe Biden has promised, a little more cautiously, to withdraw “the vast majority.”
The problem is we still have major national security interests in Afghanistan, beyond our once-ambitious promises to build democracy, end opium cultivation and promote women’s rights.
U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan weeks after Bin Laden, who was under Taliban protection, launched the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America. A CIA-led raid killed Bin Laden in 2011 but some of his Al Qaeda followers remain active. Another terrorist group, the Afghan branch of Islamic State, known as IS-Khorasan, may be even more dangerous.
Those threats are the reason U.S. and NATO troops have stayed so long in Afghanistan — and why Trump sent 3,000 more troops in 2017, bringing the total to about 14,000.
When the surge produced no clear progress, the president asked the Pentagon to prepare for a partial pullout. After GOP hawks in Congress protested, he reversed and let the troops stay.
Now he’s talking about withdrawal again. But after Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) charged that Trump was acting like — shudder — Barack Obama, the president said he only wants to pull some troops out, not all of them.
“We’re always going to have a presence,” he told Fox News radio last week. “We’re going down to 8,600 and then we’ll make a determination from there as to what happens.”
That sounded like a proposal Biden made a decade ago as Obama’s vice president: a minimal but continuing U.S. military presence, focusing on counter-terrorism.
Despite the ups and downs, Zalmay Khalilzad, the veteran U.S. diplomat leading the talks in Qatar, has given public assurances that the peace process is on track.
The deal reportedly will require the Taliban to police areas it controls to prevent Al Qaeda and IS-Khorasan from gaining a foothold. The Taliban will promise to enter good-faith negotiations with the Afghan government to end the war, including a potential power-sharing arrangement.
The U.S. side will commit to withdrawing most or all of its troops in stages, after the Taliban keeps specific commitments. The U.S. will also maintain counter-terrorist units in the region and assert its right to attack Al Qaeda or other terrorists wherever they are.
It’s a complex set of mutual obligations. It will work only if the Taliban, the Afghan government and the United States all follow through. It will require diplomatic deftness, something the Trump administration rarely exhibits.
“Maybe it can work,” Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012, told me. “Maybe we still live in the age of miracles. But it would take a major diplomatic lift.”
Crocker argues that the U.S. will have influence in Kabul only as long as it keeps a viable military force in the country. Otherwise, he said, the outcome will be “surrender.”
An equally grim assessment comes from Jarrett Blanc, a former State Department aide who tried to open negotiations with the Taliban during the Obama administration.
“This may be the best deal we can get,” he told me. “The best possible outcome, to some extent, is one that freezes the status quo. Some parts of Afghanistan will be run by the Taliban, others will be run by the government.”
A too-hasty withdrawal will increase the risk that the central government will collapse, the civil war will intensify, and Afghanistan will again become a refuge for terrorists. If that happens, Trump could be blamed. That fear has restrained him so far.
But it means whoever wins the presidency next year likely will preside over a sobering occasion in 2021: the 20th anniversary of America’s longest war.