Terry H. Schwadron
Feb. 18, 2020
While much about Trump policy is wrapped in misleading lies and drenched in self-serving domestic politics, there is hope that a deal between the United States and the Taliban could open the way to ending American involvement in the war in Afghanistan.
It seems both too easy, however, and just beyond the scope of credibility to accept that there is a reliable handshake. Instead, the healthy skeptic in me says there is what appears to be a deal, likely for domestic political gain rather than for the long-term health of either the Afghan nation or the rollback of international terrorism sponsored in Afghanistan.
What has been announced is this: The United States and the Taliban have agreed to a temporary truce. If the Taliban can knock off violence for seven days (!), the deal would allow for negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban that, in turn, could lead to withdrawal of countrywide cease-fire and a commitment not to harbor terrorist groups like al Qaida. The Taliban wants the release of 5,000 of its soldiers now held as prisoners as part of the deal. But there were Afghan casualties just yesterday at the hands of the Taliban.
So, as I get it, it is a kind of deal to have a deal.
It would be wonderful to bring U.S. troops home, or even half of the remaining troops. We can all get behind that. We should also recognize that such a deal will also become an instant campaign item for Donald Trump, who promised a deal, but who has been all over the map.
A previous run-up to an agreement was called off at the last minute as a give-away to the Taliban. The missing participant in all the discussions to date has been the current Afghan government, which seems a pretty substantial problem in calling this a deal.
The U.S. has said the agreement for a seven-day “reduction in violence” is “very specific” and covers the entire country, including Afghan government forces. It includes roadside and suicide bombings as well as rocket attacks. If the Taliban uphold their commitments, a U.S.-Taliban peace agreement could be signed within 10 days. A Taliban official told the Associated Press that a signing had been tentatively set for Feb. 29, with the start of the Afghan talks planned for March 10. Germany and Norway apparently have offered to host the talks.
It sounds to me as if there are more questions here than answers. What I sense is that Americans want badly to get out of Dodge, but the prospects for anything resembling a real and lasting peace with an emergent Afghanistan that stands against terrorism is so unclear as to be unattainable.
Even the first steps here may be impossible. The idea that we are basing an end to American military involvement on a seven-day truce seems somehow pretty fragile.
As evidence of just how thin the agreements may be to date, the AP said its information came separately from U.S. and Taliban officials who were not authorized to discuss the issues.
Among the things that could cause the wheels to fall off any agreement:
— The Afghan government itself was briefed after that agreement was announced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper who met with the Taliban. There is a vast amount of hate between the Afghan government and the Taliban to be dispatched, and whatever sense there might be about a shared government needs to be worked out. There are entrenched interests are keeping things just as they are, for example.
— Uncertainty surrounds any gains made for Afghan women and girls since the fall of the Taliban months after the U.S. military response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks ordered by Osama bin Laden from Afghan soil.
— Just what Americans have agreed to is less than clear. Esper said that the U.S. and Taliban had “negotiated a proposal for a seven-day reduction in violence.” Just who decides whether that has been achieved is unclear, or whether there are rogue elements who are outside the control of the U.S. forces or the Taliban is not known. There are NATO nation troops in Afghanistan as well.
— While some troops would be withdrawn, there is no guarantee of any end to the fighting. The Taliban have been unwilling to lay down their arms, rebuffing calls for a ceasefire during negotiations.
Of course, we have been here before. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama wanted out of Afghanistan amid wide American voter fatigue at a war whose goals never were particularly clear, but it did not happen.
What kept it from happening was a lack of trust that an authorized Taliban return to government would keep that nation from harboring terrorists once again.
What exactly did we gain here in 18 years of combat and the deaths of 2,440 American lives? What exactly did we want, and how are we measuring success? After the trillions of dollars spent, what exactly are we agreeing to now? Is Congress even engaged enough to determine the substance of what will be another Trump boast here?
The question now will be whether a Donald Trump, more intent on the domestic concerns of his re-election campaign than on international peace-making, will have a different view, and one that is different from the earlier years of his administration.
Indeed, all the Democratic candidates seem to want out as well.
It feels to me that we are having just as much difficulty finding the basis on which to leave as we did in going to Afghanistan in the first place.
I’m only sure that the Taliban and their ilk believe that Americans want out more than they want to worry about what any such agreement means.