The Taliban deal makes sense only if the U.S. wants a glide path out of the Afghan war regardless of the consequences.
The agreement, signed by the U.S. and the Taliban, commits us to eliminating our military presence in the next 14 months. First, the U.S. will reduce its troops by 5,000 over the next several months and then remove the remaining 8,600 next year.
In exchange, the Taliban supposedly will not allow al-Qaeda or any other groups to use Afghan soil to threaten the United States, and will enter into cease-fire negotiations with the Afghan government.
It’s hard to take the Taliban’s commitment on al-Qaeda seriously. It already denies that it collaborates with terror groups, including al-Qaeda, even though this is blatantly false. As Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal point out, in 2016 the U.S. killed Farouq al-Qahtani in eastern Afghanistan, where he was fighting alongside the Taliban and running al-Qaeda operations against the West. “The data clearly show,” they write of their analysis of U.S. counter-terror operations, “that al Qaeda and allied terrorist groups have been operating on Afghan soil for the past two decades with the approval of the Taliban.”
It’s not encouraging that the Taliban wasn’t willing to negotiate with the Afghan government prior to getting the U.S. commitment to a withdrawal, or to implement a cease-fire during the talks. Bending over backwards, the U.S. cut the Afghan government out of the negotiation, and asked only for a “reduction of violence” over the course of a week as a sign of good faith. Incredibly enough, the agreement calls for the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners at the outset of the intra-Afghan negotiations and the release of all prisoners of both sides in three months. The Afghan government is balking at this provision for good reason.
It’s understandable that we want to find a way out of the Afghan war after 18 years of heartache and toil. But we shouldn’t want the entire effort, and the Afghan government, to collapse. We could have minimized our troop commitment by dropping down to 8,600 troops unilaterally. Making the promise of a total withdrawal only reduces our leverage and that of the Afghan government. In theory, we can always stop a withdrawal based on Taliban non-compliance, even though there are no verification provisions in the public agreement. But the worry has to be that President Trump wants the deal as a justification for a withdrawal he is determined to undertake one way or the other.
Civil wars often end in negotiations. But the Taliban clearly thinks that it’s winning and that it has us on the cusp of the exits, so all it has to do is cleverly bide its time until the correlation of forces turns decisively in its favor, perhaps as soon as next year. Then, it won’t matter what it told us in Doha.