Don’t Trust the Taliban’s Promises

In his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump tied the withdrawal of U.S. troops to a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan. For a famously mercurial president, that may be no guarantee. But if the United States goes ahead with this course, negotiations should focus on fashioning a peace deal that can last instead of seeking a fig leaf to justify U.S. withdrawal.

At present, the framework agreement looks all too much like the negotiated exit of the Soviet Union three decades ago under the cover of the 1988 Geneva Accords. The Soviet withdrawal brought no peace or reconciliation to Afghanistan, and unless backed up with serious precautionary measures, neither will the U.S. exit.

The desire of Trump and his supporters to not act as “the world’s policeman” is understandable. But they fail to realize that the United States cannot be a global leader unless it has a global role—even if that is more as umpire than policeman. Trump’s trumpeted withdrawal from the Middle East and Afghanistan is not compatible with his talk of winning.

U.S. priorities in talks with the Afghan Taliban should be to seek a cease-fire, the release of Western hostages held by the Taliban, and an accommodation between the insurgents and the lawful Afghan government. Pakistani-created safe havens for the Afghan Taliban also need to be eliminated—a measure that can only be achieved through a hard conversation with Islamabad.

But the framework agreement announced by Trump’s special envoy for Afghan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, after initial talks with the Taliban reflected different priorities. It proposed the withdrawal of U.S. troops in return for a Taliban guarantee that Afghan territory would never be used by terrorists. But trusting the Taliban, at this point, would be sheer naiveté; the United States would be offering up an extraordinary concession—withdrawal—in return for a highly unreliable promise.

U.S. withdrawal without conditions being fulfilled would only signal America’s defeat and retreat. Jihadis across the world would celebrate such a deal as the vanquishing of a second global superpower at their hands.

In Afghanistan, the aftermath of a U.S. cut and run would probably be no different than the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The people of Afghanistan will fight to forestall the return of the Taliban’s Islamic emirate. From their perspective, it might be better if the Americans withdraw without a deal that lets the Taliban into Kabul through the back door.

The framework agreement has already come under severe criticism. The veteran U.S. diplomat Ryan Crocker described it as tantamount to surrender. James Dobbins, who served as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan under President Barack Obama and was at one point responsible for negotiations with the Taliban, also warned against rushing into an Afghan deal.

Khalilzad dealt with the criticism by suggesting that there were elements of his talks with the Taliban that were just not known to the critics. “The path to peace doesn’t often run in a straight line,” he tweeted, adding that the situation in Afghanistan was complex and “like all sensitive talks, not everything is conducted in public.”

Khalilzad is an experienced and competent diplomat. But like all diplomats, he only executes policy, and the room for him to apply his experience is limited by the preferences of his boss.

The very fact that a U.S. presidential envoy has been negotiating with them has given the Taliban a degree of legitimacy. Accepting their assurance about not letting terrorists use Afghan soil implies that the terrorist acts perpetrated by the Taliban and their Haqqani network—including attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and American civilians—are now forgotten and forgiven.

By announcing withdrawal, the Trump administration repeated the folly of the Obama administration. When a superpower signals its desperation to get out of a conflict, the subsequent negotiations are designed only to provide diplomatic cover.

The Taliban know that, which explains their willingness to make promises they do not intend to keep. They have offered similar assurances in the past.

Knowing that the Americans are eager to leave enables the Taliban to wait before they march victoriously into Kabul once again. At talks sponsored by Russia, the Taliban insisted on withdrawal of foreign troops while Afghan politicians called for an interim government.

But Afghanistan has a functioning government, and dismantling the progress made since 2001 makes no sense. The U.S. negotiating position should be to secure the Taliban’s participation in Afghanistan’s political process, not to undo the constitution and the institutions that have evolved over the last 17 years—and which have produced successes including an improved role for women in society and a growing economy.

Most Afghans believe that the reason for the Taliban’s endurance is not popular support or even their battlefront resilience but their support from Pakistan. They fear that an Afghan settlement based on concessions to the Taliban and Pakistan would only lead to another war between Afghan patriots and Pakistan’s proxies. Pakistan promised that it wasn’t sheltering Osama bin Laden, and the promises of its proxies, including the Taliban, are no more reliable.

A deal that sells out Kabul is hardly likely to receive support from Afghanistan’s government. Amrullah Saleh, current President Ashraf Ghani’s choice as his vice presidential running mate for the upcoming elections in July, pointed out recently that Afghanistan was not “invented by the West on September 12, 2001 and won’t disappear if and as they wish to leave.”

Saleh is a veteran of the Afghan resistance to Taliban rule before 9/11. He blames Pakistan for Afghanistan’s continued travails while promising to reciprocate any genuine desire for peace in Islamabad. He and many others, including Ghani, are unlikely to accept a deal that leaves the Taliban with the whip hand—and Pakistan in control.

Pakistan could play a positive role in Afghan peace talks provided it changes its ultimate goal—in place since the 1970s—of installing an Islamist, Pashtun, pro-Pakistan, anti-Indian government in Kabul. Pakistan could make friendly overtures to the legitimately elected Afghan government to secure its regional interests, but instead it still relies on proxies such as the Taliban and the Haqqani network.

America can play a critical role in ensuring a lasting peace in Afghanistan. But a hasty withdrawal based on unreliable promises from a terrorist opponent is a recipe for calamity. A stronger peace can be forged among Washington, Kabul, and Islamabad—if every side is willing to wait and deal properly. But if the United States keeps signaling that getting out is more important than peace and stability, the Taliban and others will listen.