Is the end nigh for the US war in Afghanistan? As planned, the Taliban and the US have entered into a “reduction of violence” agreement as a sign of good faith in advance of a more comprehensive cease-fire. In seven days, assuming both sides agree to whatever terms the “reduction” demands, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will launch a formal peace and reconciliation process between the warring factions within Afghanistan.
NBC News reports that Afghans of all political and tribal stripes have grown “sick of fighting.” We’ll soon see just how true that might be:
A seven-day partial truce between Afghan, Taliban and American forces will begin Friday in Afghanistan, a senior state department official confirmed. If that agreement holds, it would lead to the signing of a long-awaited, broader U.S.-Taliban agreement that could see U.S. troops withdraw from the country after 18 years of conflict.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed in a statement that the U.S. was “preparing for the signing to take place on February 29.”
The reduction in violence is seen as a test of the Taliban’s resolve to end the conflict in Afghanistan, which is America’s longest war. If properly implemented, a Taliban representative and U.S. Special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad will sign the U.S.-Taliban agreement in Doha later this month, a senior state department official said.
The “reduction in violence” might be the easy part. That got a little more definition in the Washington Post today than had been reported earlier. As assumed, it requires all sides to “largely cease” offensive operations against each other. The US can still conduct counterterrorism operations against other networks such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. The Taliban won’t mind operations against ISIS at least, which is setting up as a competing faction, and they can’t really afford to protest against operations targeting AQ with a US exit so close at hand.
The next step would require the Taliban to negotiate with a government it refuses to recognize as a legitimate authority. The best they’re willing to concede at the moment is to talk to them as “ordinary Afghans,” according to the Associated Press:
It’s still not clear who will represent Kabul at the negotiation table for the intra-Afghan talks, considered a key pillar in finding a lasting peace in the war-torn country. The Afghan election commission earlier this week declared President Ashraf Ghani the winner of the presidential elections held in September but his rivals quickly denounced his win.
The Taliban have refused to talk to Ghani’s government and also denounced the election results, saying they will talk to government representatives but only as ordinary Afghans.
Pompeo’s statement did not say who would participate in the intra-Afghan negotiations from Kabul, saying only that “’intra-Afghan negotiations will start soon” after the signing in Doha “and will build on this fundamental step to deliver a comprehensive and permanent cease-fire and the future political road map for Afghanistan.”
With Donald Trump clearly wanting an exit ramp for US involvement in Afghanistan, this will likely be a secondary concern for the White House at best. The Afghans will have to eventually figure out who runs their country, and as is their history, it will likely get decided at the point of a gun. No one can seriously believe that the Pashtuns and their radical-Islam Taliban leadership have turned into small-D democrats in the past few months of negotiations. When the US (and NATO) clear out for good, the Pashtuns will again try to take power by force, and everyone knows it. That’s one reason why it doesn’t make much difference who sits on the other side of the table — only that they have the weapons to make the Taliban consider their next moves carefully.
The US only has two strategic considerations left in Afghanistan. The first is to leave in a period of peace in order to maintain credibility elsewhere, and the second is to make sure that terror networks don’t use Afghanistan as a launching pad for attacks against the US. The Taliban apparently want to make sure the US has both, at least rhetorically, as an incentive to get us out of the country:
“Both parties will now create a suitable security situation in advance of agreement signing date, extend invitations to senior representatives of numerous countries and organizations to participate in the signing ceremony, make arrangements for the release of prisoners, structure a path for intra-Afghan negotiations with various political parties of the country and finally lay the groundwork for peace across the country with the withdrawal of all foreign forces,” the Taliban said in a statement Friday.
The Taliban added that they will not allow “the land of Afghanistan to be used against security of others so that our people can live a peaceful and prosperous life under the shade of an Islamic system.”
Yes, we all recall the heady days of peace and prosperity under the previous Taliban regime, don’t we?
If the Taliban takes that pledge seriously against allowing outside terror groups to base themselves in the country, then the US has its key strategic victory. But even if they are serious about that pledge, it seems very difficult to see how the Taliban or even the broader Afghan government can deliver on it. Even in a full and enduring cease-fire, the turf conflicts that will arise in tribal Afghanistan will mean large security gaps in a country that barely qualifies as such, let alone a coherent nation. And if those turf conflicts go back into a civil war, the Taliban will undoubtedly and cheerfully accept the assistance of outside radical Islamist terror networks to win it.
Perhaps the lessons from 19 years of occupation might have them think twice. It didn’t after the Soviets pulled out, however, and they were a lot closer and logistically capable of punishment than the US will be.