Sometimes, foreign policy consists of trying to make lemonade out of lemons.
In the case of the recently signed US-Taliban agreement on Afghanistan, President Trump provided the lemons, and the lead US negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, and his team did the squeezing. Trump made clear that he intended to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan — with or without a “deal.” Then Nato partners pressured the United States not to reward the Taliban by conceding their long-held objective of forcing an American withdrawal for free. So, the president reportedly gave his negotiators a finite window to explore whether some deal was achievable.
Lacking the backing of a resolute American commander in chief, Khalilzad got what he could — a deeply flawed agreement that has the potential to lead to peace but is very unlikely to achieve it. In short, the United States gave away a lot and got relatively little in return.
To start, the United States dropped its long-standing, principled opposition to negotiating directly with the Taliban without our key partner, the Afghan government, at the table. Next, following a seven-day, roughly 80 per cent “reduction in violence,” the United States acceded to the Taliban’s primary demand — that America fully withdraw all of its own and Nato forces as well as intelligence personnel from Afghanistan.
Trump agreed to draw down from our current force level of approximately 12,000 US troops to 8,600 (the level he inherited from President Barack Obama) within four and a half months. Within 14 months, he will drop American and Nato troops to zero — leaving only an embassy-based diplomatic presence.
Senior US officials insist that the American withdrawal is “conditions-based,” but no political or military requirements have been specified. Additionally, the United States announced it intended to lift all American and United Nations sanctions against the Taliban by the end of August.
In exchange, the Taliban pledged not to cooperate with, and to prevent the use of its territory by, terrorists who threaten or target the United States and our allies. The Taliban also agreed to enter intra-Afghan talks, including with government representatives, by March 10, to discuss a ceasefire and future political settlement. The start of talks seems contingent on the Afghan government releasing up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners, and the Taliban responding by freeing up to 1,000 government prisoners. However, Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Gani, has already balked, because he knows that releasing Taliban prisoners before negotiations would amount to relinquishing his minimal leverage in talks with the Taliban.
In assessing the US-Taliban agreement, it is important to first acknowledge the positive results. Any end to the war in Afghanistan can come only through a settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. To the extent that the present document, barely four pages long, could become a first step that culminates in talks to discuss such a settlement, it is better than nothing. Moreover, if the reduction in violence by 80 per cent is sustained and the Taliban curtail attacks not only against American and coalition forces, but also against Afghan government forces, it would lessen the bloodshed and help create conditions more conducive for negotiations.
Unfortunately, there are troubling early signs that the Taliban are already resuming attacks against civilians and Afghan forces.
And in the long run, the fundamental weaknesses of the US-Taliban agreement will most likely endanger America’s national security and doom prospects for a just and lasting peace in Afghanistan.
Why is that? First, under President Trump, the United States is widely seen to be committed to withdrawing from Afghanistan under almost any circumstances. There are no indications of what “conditions” might slow or halt an American drawdown of troops short of a major attack by Al Qaida launched with clear Taliban support. Not sustained violence against Afghan forces, nor smaller-scale terrorist attacks, nor continued Daesh operations seem likely to prompt the United States to reverse course. The Taliban know this and so does the Afghan government, reducing nearly to nil America’s influence over events in Afghanistan.
For those reasons, intra-Afghan negotiations, if they begin, will strongly favour the Taliban. By cutting a deal with the Taliban that excluded (and even failed to mention) the Afghan government, the United States legitimated the Taliban and further weakened the Afghan government. In committing to the Taliban to end the American military presence and drop sanctions, the United States also sacrificed its remaining leverage to help the government in intra-Afghan negotiations achieve critical shared objectives, like protecting democratic gains and preserving the rights of women.
Given that intra-Afghan talks will take many months, if not years, to yield any progress, the United States is likely to withdraw before any deal is done, abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban wolves. Worse, after 14 months, the United States will be left without any military or counterterrorism capacity in Afghanistan, effectively subcontracting America’s security to the Taliban. During the Obama administration, we considered and rejected the idea of reverting to a civilian US Embassy-only presence, because we understood that such a posture would leave American diplomats highly vulnerable to attack and increase the prospect of a Vietnam-style withdrawal of Americans under fire.
— Susan E. Rice was the 24th US national security adviser.