On Saturday, after 19 years of war, the United States and the Taliban began what both sides delicately called a seven-day “reduction of violence” in Afghanistan, a trial attempt at a partial truce. If the experiment works, they have set Feb. 29 for a ceremony to sign an agreement that would launch broader peace negotiations.
The Taliban has a good reason to keep its promise to pause offensive operations for a week: Under the proposed deal, the U.S. will withdraw about one-fourth of its roughly 12,000 troops from Afghanistan by this summer. It’s one goal the Taliban shares with President Trump, who wants to run for reelection claiming he is ending the United States’ longest war.
But the larger peace process that is supposed to follow will be far more difficult — and the Taliban is not the only complicating factor.
There’s also Trump’s impatience and his penchant for disrupting slow-moving diplomatic efforts at whim.
As early as 2012, Trump declared the U.S. war in Afghanistan “a complete waste” and said it was time to pull out. If something goes wrong in the Afghan peace process — and something surely will — will he check his impulse to declare victory and leave?
The plan negotiated by Trump’s special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, has plenty of moving parts. Its text hasn’t been released, but officials and others say it is almost identical to a draft deal Khalilzad reached in September.
According to their accounts, the deal calls for the United States to trim its troop presence from about 12,000 to 8,600 by July — and later, if all goes well, to zero. Or as the Taliban put it in a statement Friday, the deal would lead to “the withdrawal of all foreign forces … so that our people can live a peaceful and prosperous life under the shade of an Islamic system.”
The Taliban must agree not to harbor Islamic State, Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups that seek to attack the West. The plan even provides for U.S. forces and the Taliban to cooperate on counterterrorism.
Peace negotiations among all Afghan factions are supposed to begin within 10 days after the plan is signed. But the government in Kabul led by President Ashraf Ghani is mired in an internal power struggle and could prove incapable of acting as an effective player.
Those talks could lead to a new constitution and give the Taliban a major role in a future Afghan government.
Keeping that complex process on track will require Washington to stay involved in Afghanistan with both diplomatic muscle and continued financial aid — which means Congress will have to buy in.
That hasn’t happened. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and other Republican hawks are already grumbling about trusting the Taliban and the folly, in their view, of reducing troops below 8,600.
One question is practical: U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to destroy Al Qaeda, which launched the 9/11 attacks from its sanctuary there, and to push the Taliban out of power. Can U.S. counterterrorism needs be met without troops in Afghanistan?
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, who helped run the war under two presidents, says the answer is yes.
“The threat is not what it was in 2001. Al Qaeda is much diminished,” he told me. “And we’re much better at counterterrorism than we were back when we were simply launching cruise missiles into the desert.”
Other questions could be difficult in a different way.
Most Americans have concluded that the U.S. war in Afghanistan turned into a tragic, expensive failure once it expanded beyond unseating Al Qaeda. The explicit U.S. recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political force makes that verdict official.
And allowing the Taliban to win a share of power — or potentially dominate the government in Kabul — will diminish whatever hope remains of helping Afghanistan become a recognizable democracy.
Americans once congratulated themselves for freeing Afghanistan’s women from Islamic extremism. Taliban leaders have said they intend to protect women’s rights to education and employment, but their track record — closing schools, barring women from public life, and worse — inspires little confidence.
Many, including Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, are pessimistic.
“We encouraged women to step forward,” Crocker told me. “Now it appears they’re expendable.”
Trump has disrupted his own diplomacy more than once. When the U.S. and Taliban reached a tentative deal last September, Trump impulsively decided that he wanted Taliban leaders to fly to Camp David for a splashy ceremony three days before the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
The Taliban, which isn’t big on photo ops, refused. Republicans in Congress also denounced the idea of honoring the leaders of a guerrilla force who had killed 1,800 Americans by bringing them to the presidential retreat in Maryland. Trump announced that he was canceling the deal entirely, blamed the Taliban for an attack that killed a U.S. serviceman in Kabul, and pronounced the peace talks “dead.”
Khalilzad needed almost six months to bring the deal back to life.
If the Feb. 29 deal holds, Trump will claim credit for cutting U.S. troops in Afghanistan down to 8,600 — the same number deployed when President Obama left office.
But what Trump really wants is to announce —in an election year, no less — that those troops are on their way home, too.
Given the complexities of Afghan politics, that’s probably impossible. Diplomats warn that putting pressure on the Afghans to conclude a peace agreement could scuttle the process.
If Trump wants to withdraw troops as part of a comprehensive deal — one that avoids chaos, meets U.S. counterterrorism needs and gives Afghanistan a chance at peace — he’ll need to exercise unwonted self-restraint.
After three years as president, he doesn’t have many diplomatic achievements to his name. He’s staged disruptive events, including summit meetings with Kim Jong Un, trade wars and withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, but produced few tangible accomplishments.
Launching a peace process for Afghanistan, if it succeeds, could be his most substantive achievement — but only if he gets out of his own way.