- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 5, 2019

Opposition to President Trump’s still-to-be-unveiled Taliban peace plan is growing, with top diplomats wary of signing off on the agreement and fresh U.S. casualties in Afghanistan and Taliban terrorist strikes threatening to turn public opinion against it.

Even as the deal seemed close Thursday, the Taliban carried out yet another suicide bombing near the U.S. Embassy in the heart of Kabul, killing an American service member, a Romanian soldier and at least 10 civilians. It was the latest in a string of relentless attacks during the U.S.-led talks with Taliban leaders and marked the fourth American death at the hands of the radical Islamist group over the past two weeks.

The government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has long complained that it has been shut out of the talks, led by U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and held in Qatar. A report said even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo harbors doubts about the proposed agreement. Mr. Khalilzad was reportedly rushing back to Qatar in the wake of the Kabul attack for more talks with Taliban leaders.

In Afghanistan and Washington, frustration is mounting over the U.S. strategy of negotiating with a partner that regularly kills American military personnel, indiscriminately targets civilians and publicly boasts about returning Afghanistan to the pre-9/11 era.

Waheed Omer, Mr. Ghani’s director of public and strategic affairs, told reporters in Kabul that concerns are “very high” in the government and among the people of Afghanistan about what the U.S. accord contains.

“Afghans have been bitten by this snake before,” he said, according to an account by The Associated Press. “They have seen the results of hasty deals, of deals they and their voices weren’t part of.”

Military observers and regional analysts say there is an increasing realization that the deal as constructed, especially with the Taliban showing little good faith, may die.

“This deal amounts to a humiliating capitulation,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who has tracked the 18-year-old Afghanistan war extensively.

“I believe, at least among U.S. policymakers, military and intelligence circles, there is a rising tide of disapproval,” he said. “I’m wondering if anyone wants to put their name on this deal because history will record them signing a humiliating American defeat in Afghanistan.”

Indeed, Time reported late Wednesday that Mr. Pompeo is refusing to sign off on the agreement that Mr. Khalilzad negotiated.

Under the deal, roughly 5,400 of the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan would be withdrawn and five military bases in the country would be shuttered in short order. In exchange, the Taliban would guarantee that Afghanistan will never again be used as a base from which terrorist groups can attack the West.

The deal reportedly does not require an end to the Taliban’s brutal attacks or explicitly call for a U.S.-backed government in Kabul to remain in full control of Afghanistan.

Mr. Pompeo and other officials also reportedly object to the Taliban’s insistence that the U.S. recognize the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” — the nation’s formal name during the Taliban’s five-year reign leading up to the al Qaeda terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Mr. Trump has made a major policy goal of winding down the deployment and chafes at U.S. military officials’ arguments for a long-term role in Afghanistan. Mr. Pompeo, who publicly backs the president, argues that the U.S. has largely accomplished its mission.

“If you go back and look at the days following 9/11, the objectives set out were pretty clear: to go defeat al Qaeda, the group that had launched the attack on the United States of America from Afghanistan,” he told The Daily Signal in an interview published late Wednesday. “And today, al Qaeda … doesn’t even amount to a shadow of its former self in Afghanistan.

“We have delivered,” he said.

Mr. Khalilzad said earlier this week that the two sides had reached a deal “in principle.”

A lack of clarity

On Capitol Hill, key lawmakers say Mr. Trump and Mr. Khalilzad have been less than forthcoming about details of the peace plan. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat, sent a letter Thursday to Mr. Khalilzad demanding testimony before Congress.

His blunt letter, which suggests that Democrats will subpoena Mr. Khalilzad if he doesn’t agree to appear on Capitol Hill soon, underscores how lawmakers have been largely kept in the dark.

“I understand your team has established a framework agreement with the Taliban, and that a copy of this agreement has been disseminated among officials in the Trump administration and shared with [the government in Afghanistan],” Mr. Engel wrote. “Similarly, the American and Afghan people deserve to know what the administration’s diplomatic strategy is for Afghanistan.

“After nearly two decades of war, we all want to see the fighting in Afghanistan come to an end. But we want to make sure we are negotiating a peace and not simply a withdrawal,” Mr. Engel added.

Opposition among the beleaguered U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan also is building. After the attack Thursday in Kabul, Mr. Ghani said the U.S. cannot continue talks as long as the Taliban are targeting civilians.

“Peace with a group that is still killing innocent people is meaningless,” he said.

The suicide car bombing was the latest in a series of attacks by the Taliban, who have made clear that they believe violence is a way to extract more concessions from the U.S.

The most recent incident resulted in the fourth death of an American service member in the past two weeks. NATO’s Resolute Support Mission confirmed the deaths but did not identify the service member.

Surveillance cameras captured the bomber’s vehicle approaching a checkpoint in a crowded diplomatic area of Kabul near the U.S. Embassy, The Associated Press reported. The vehicle then exploded.

In addition to the 12 deaths, at least 42 people were wounded.

Pressed at an Oval Office event Wednesday about the Afghanistan talks and the trustworthiness of the Taliban, Mr. Trump provided little clarity beyond his desire to wind up a fight in which he said the U.S. military was functioning as “policemen.”

“We’re talking to the Taliban, we’re talking to the government,” Mr. Trump said. “We’ll see if we can do something. It’s been a long time. We have great warriors there, we have great soldiers. But they’re not acting as soldiers.”

Some analysts say the lack of security guarantees in the draft deal, coupled with the Taliban’s refusal to tamp down attacks, could sway even the most ardent supporters of a negotiated peace agreement, including the Afghan-born Mr. Khalilzad, who has spent countless hours negotiating with the Taliban and has seemed personally invested in brokering peace.

“If there is a severe backlash like I believe we’re starting to see, he might not want to sign it either,” Mr. Roggio said.

If the administration moves forward, he said, the results will be disastrous and could ultimately end with the Taliban trying to fully overthrow the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.

“They’re granting approval to the Taliban to go on a rampage after the U.S. leaves,” Mr. Roggio said of the administration’s approach.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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