A Frayed Afghan Ceasefire
Terry H. Schwadron
March 15, 2020
Two weeks ago, the Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban and announced it had achieved an important moment at being in a position to withdraw U.S. troops after 19 years — something Donald Trump underscored by adding that none of his predecessors had been able to say.
It was based on months of talk and seven days of almost ceasefire — only two or three reported deaths that week. The way was opened for the Taliban and the sitting government of Afghanistan to work out an inclusive way forward.
This week, we’ve seen explosions within a couple of blocks of the presidential inauguration in Kabul, two men declaring themselves president and renewed conflict with the Taliban.
There have been no announcements from our State Department this week about how things probably haven’t been working out.
Indeed, though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had warned of a rocky road ahead, he also assured that there were loads of security compliance targets that the Taliban must meet as this agreement’s “trust but verify” continencies.
In Congress and among those who watch some things, it became clear that the Trump administration has not disclosed what actually comprise those compliance tests, that the goals remain secret.
As The Washington Post editorialized, “Why is the Trump administration keeping parts of its deal with the Taliban secret from the public? There’s no point in hiding them from the Taliban, because they have the annexes. The State Department says the reason is to conceal details of military movements from, “for example, ISIS.” But skeptical members of Congress who have seen the documents believe the real reason is that the agreement is so vague on how to ensure that the Taliban are living up to their end of the bargain.”
The agreement called for the United States agreed to withdraw all American and allied forces from Afghanistan within 14 months, starting now. In return, Taliban leaders pledged not to cooperate with terrorist organizations that target the United States or to let them use Afghan territory, to open talks with the sitting Afghan government, which was left out of negotiations, and to cease fire.
As it turns out, the language that governs the criteria for compliance are classified. The editorial noted that “it’s hard to escape the suspicion that they are being kept secret from the American public because, as The New York Times reported on Sunday, the annexes give President Trump “enormous latitude to simply declare that the war is over and leave.”
Usual Republican supporters, including Rep. Liz Cheney, R-WY, have complained since seeing the documents under classified rules that she remains unsure the deal has sufficient mechanisms to verify that the Taliban are abiding by the terms.
“If that’s why the documents are being kept from the public, the secrecy is underhanded. The war in Afghanistan has cost the United States far too much in lives and treasure — 2,400 service members killed, $2 trillion spent — to be used for cheap political manipulation,” editorialized the Post.
No one has claimed that this is a good deal, just an acknowledgement of stalemate after 19 years, and a loss of goal for the U.S. There are no guarantees for religious freedom even among various Islamist sects, for the rights of women, or for actual support of a non-aggressive government. “At its core, the deal is a mechanism allowing American and allied troops to cut their losses in a war that has gone on too long and offers no prospect of a military victory.”
So, two weeks after virtually declaring mission accomplished, this agreement is teetering in delays and rival personalities and ideologies. There have been about 80 attacks in Afghanistan since the agreement was signed.
All that may show directly the futility of an American or allied role in a rudderless Afghanistan. But there was a deal, and we should be able to hold the Taliban to it. That’s what the still-secret compliance language was all about.
If legislators who have viewed the annexes have found the criteria for compliance so nebulous as to make the process meaningless, we should know that this was another strike aimed more at use in Trump’s political reelection campaign than in finding a way to peace.