- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Military and diplomatic officials are taking a skeptical, wait-and-see approach to the Trump administration’s unfolding peace talks with the Taliban and urging extreme caution before signing any deal to wind down America’s 18-year-old war in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials said this week that they had reached a deal in principle with the Taliban in which 5,400 of the 14,000 American troops would come home immediately in exchange for guarantees from the militant Islamist group that Afghanistan would never again become a safe haven for terrorists. Five U.S. bases would be closed within five months of the signing of the accord.

The move would fulfill a major campaign promise by President Trump, who has long vowed to pull the nation from “endless wars,” though it was not clear when and under what conditions the remaining U.S. and foreign troops would leave.

But the talks, led by special U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, have raced forward with some key stakeholders left on the sidelines. Mr. Khalilzad showed the tentative deal only to the U.S.-backed Afghan government in Kabul over the weekend, and Mr. Trump has yet to sign off on the agreement. U.S. military officials have not seen much evidence from the multiple rounds of U.S.-Taliban talks Mr. Khalilzad has been conducting in Qatar over the past year.

Pentagon officials have largely avoided discussing specifics of the deal publicly and have deferred to the State Department. Privately, current and former military officials readily acknowledge a great deal of uncertainty about whether the Taliban will fulfill its promises to cut ties with extremist groups such as al Qaeda and call off its military campaign against the Kabul government.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper was meeting privately at the White House on Tuesday evening. White House aides said the Afghanistan deal would be part of the conversation.

Mr. Esper has issued a general statement in favor of the Taliban talks but has yet to weigh in publicly on what has been negotiated.

A host of former American diplomats who worked in Afghanistan and served under presidents of both parties said they support the administration’s ultimate goal but, much like their military counterparts, they warned that the U.S. is taking a risk.

“It is not clear whether peace is possible. The Taliban have made no clear statements about the conditions they would accept for a peaceful settlement with their fellow Afghans, nor do they have a track record of working with other political forces,” nine former U.S. diplomats wrote in a letter Tuesday released by the Atlantic Council, a leading Washington think tank.

Former Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and former Ambassador to Afghanistan William Wood were among those who signed the letter.

With details of the deal scarce, many fear Mr. Trump’s desire to wind down the war is clashing with realities on the ground. Marvin G. Weinbaum, director for Afghanistan and Pakistan studies at the Middle East Institute, wrote that the emerging agreement seems to offer few Taliban concessions.

“The Taliban promise a full cease-fire once the foreign troops are gone and to begin serious Afghan peace talks, but have not budged on their refusal to include representatives of the Kabul government in negotiations,” Mr. Weinbaum said. “Most problematic, the U.S. has taken on good faith the Taliban’s pledge to break ties with al Qaeda and deny terrorist organizations an opportunity to operate from Afghan soil.”

Attacks continue

Tuesday brought yet another reminder of the Taliban’s penchant for violence, even as the peace accord hung in the balance. The group launched a suicide bombing in a section of Kabul populated by foreigners and international organizations that killed at least 16 people and wounded more than 100 others, most of them Afghan civilians.

The U.S. and its allies have urged an end to such attacks, but the Taliban have made clear that they view the violence as a negotiating tool and believe they can extract more concessions from Washington by continuing their rampage through the country.

“We understand that peace talks are going on,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told The Associated Press. “But they must also understand that we are not weak and if we enter into talks … we enter from a strong position.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Tuesday to discuss the state of the negotiations and of the multinational coalition deployed in Afghanistan. Underscoring the delicate nature of the talks, Mr. Stoltenberg praised the U.S.-led diplomatic efforts while condemning the most recent attack in Kabul.

NATO “fully supports efforts to achieve peace in #Afghanistan,” Mr. Stoltenberg tweeted. “I condemn recent horrific attacks & NATO remains committed to supporting Afghan forces.”

While White House and Pentagon officials publicly stress that the remaining U.S. force of 8,600 would be enough to protect American diplomatic assets and continue training Afghan forces, some former military officials are raising questions about potential long-term consequences.

Speaking on Tuesday at the Council on Foreign Relations, former Defense Secretary James Mattis avoided specific details of the Afghanistan peace process, but he made clear that the U.S. must remain aware that an agreement with the Taliban does not automatically equal a lasting peace.

“The idea that we can now turn our back on this threat and somehow we’re going to live in an island in the global community, unaffected by it, just doesn’t match,” said Mr. Mattis, who quit the Pentagon late last year in part because of differences with Mr. Trump over the Afghanistan mission. “We’re going to have to learn from our past, and we’re going to have to see where alliances can help take some of the burden off us and protect others.”

Military officials privately stress that a U.S. peace deal with the Taliban is hardly the final step. A key part of the negotiations centers on the Taliban ultimately sitting down with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul and establishing a new governance structure inside the country.

So far, the Taliban have refused even to talk to the Afghan government.

Analysts said Tuesday’s attack was as much about gaining leverage in those talks as it was about pressuring the U.S.

“The idea is to intimidate the U.S. and pressure it to make more concessions in negotiations to give the insurgents a better deal,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Center at the Wilson Center. “And with the increasing likelihood that the Taliban will hold talks with Afghan leaders, the insurgents clearly are directing their message to Kabul as well.”

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