Donald Trump finally managed to get an interim peace agreement inked with the Taliban, opening the door to a possible US troop withdrawal over the next 14 months.
The deal, signed in Doha by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, sets the stage for more complex negotiations with the Afghan government.
“We hope the US-Taliban peace will lead to a permanent ceasefire…The nation is looking forward to a full ceasefire”, Ashraf Ghani said, during a press conference in Kabul with Mark Esper, who called Saturday “a hopeful moment, but only the beginning”.
In essence, the agreement calls for the US to scale back its troop presence in Afghanistan to under 9,000 from around 13,000 over the next 135 days.
A full withdrawal could come by April 2021 assuming the Taliban makes good on its commitments which, generally speaking, entail not killing a bunch of people and, crucially, not providing sanctuary for Sunni extremists who might be planning to do things like… oh, I don’t know, fly planes into skyscrapers, for example.
As the deal was being finalized Saturday in Qatar, the Taliban told its fighters to “refrain from any kind of attack for the happiness of the nation”.
— Mujib Mashal (@MujMash) February 29, 2020
NATO, meanwhile, plans to pull some 4,000 troops out of the country as part of the first phase of what promises to be a tenuous agreement.
The Afghan government will need to sort out how to share power with the Taliban, no easy task.
The presence of US troops in the country for at least another 14 months ostensibly means the government won’t have to negotiate under duress, but now that the Taliban knows when the US plans to leave, one can’t help but characterize this as anything other than a foreign policy gamble – and a pretty epic one at that.
“The Haqqani Network is still classified as a terrorist group by the United States, having carried out dozens of deadly suicide bombings [and] the leader of the network, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is the Taliban’s deputy leader and operational commander”, The New York Times dryly notes, underscoring just how tenuous this situation really is.
Haqqani wrote the following in an Op-Ed for The Times called “What We, The Taliban, Want“, published earlier this month:
The long war has exacted a terrible cost from everyone. We thought it unwise to dismiss any potential opportunity for peace no matter how meager the prospects of its success. For more than four decades, precious Afghan lives have been lost every day. Everyone has lost somebody they loved. Everyone is tired of war. I am convinced that the killing and the maiming must stop.
We did not choose our war with the foreign coalition led by the United States. We were forced to defend ourselves. The withdrawal of foreign forces has been our first and foremost demand. That we today stand at the threshold of a peace agreement with the United States is no small milestone.
We are also aware of concerns about the potential of Afghanistan being used by disruptive groups to threaten regional and world security. But these concerns are inflated: Reports about foreign groups in Afghanistan are politically motivated exaggerations by the warmongering players on all sides of the war.
It is not in the interest of any Afghan to allow such groups to hijack our country and turn it into a battleground. We have already suffered enough from foreign interventions. We will take all measures in partnership with other Afghans to make sure the new Afghanistan is a bastion of stability and that nobody feels threatened on our soil.
Haqqani is still on the FBI’s most wanted list and The Times’s decision to publish the Op-Ed excerpted above drew sharp criticism from all corners, and even a pseudo-rebuke from Mujib Mashal, the Times’s own senior correspondent in Afghanistan.
To be clear, there is more than a little merit to that criticism. Haqqani is, in a word, dangerous. In two words, he’s a nemesis. In seven words, he is not a man to be trifled with. His legendary father (whose death was officially acknowledged by the Taliban only in 2018) was a CIA ally during the Cold War.
The Times defended its decision to publish the Op-Ed in an e-mail to the Washington Post last week:
We know firsthand how dangerous and destructive the Taliban is. But, our mission at Times Opinion is to tackle big ideas from a range of newsworthy viewpoints. We’ve actively solicited voices from all sides of the Afghanistan conflict, the government, the Taliban and from citizens. Sirajuddin Haqqani is the second-in-command of the Taliban at a time when its negotiators are hammering out an agreement with American officials in Doha that could result in American troops leaving Afghanistan. That makes his perspective relevant at this particular moment.
As part of the new agreement, the US may release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners being held by the Afghan government, and will review current sanctions on the group’s members.
The deal is not officially a “ceasefire”. Rather, it’s a “reduction in violence”.
In the days leading up to Saturday’s deal, attacks across the country fell precipitously from the usual five-dozen (give or take) each day, to around 10.
Donald Trump’s relationship with the Taliban is — ummm — let’s just call it “complicated”.
In September, Trump infamously invited officials from the group to Camp David on the anniversary of 9/11, optics be damned. That comically ill-conceived idea went awry in spectacular fashion when Trump shocked America by tweeting that “Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders… were going to secretly meet with me”.
Perhaps realizing that what he had tweeted sounded so surreal that people might not believe it, Trump added: “[They were] coming to the United States tonight”.
Ultimately, Trump called off the meeting after the Taliban claimed responsibility for a car bombing in Kabul that killed a dozen people, including an American soldier. But the tweets served as a rather stark reminder that we have truly transcended satire in the Trump era. “#TalibanTrump” was a trending hashtag that day as incredulous netizens mocked the White House.
Fast forward to Thanksgiving and, during an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, Trump declared that peace discussions weren’t dead yet. The Taliban “wants to make a deal”, he said, adding that US officials are “meeting with them”.
“We’re saying it has to be a ceasefire. They didn’t want to do a ceasefire and now they want to do a ceasefire”, the president remarked . “I believe it’ll probably work out that way”.