Khalilzad: We've reached agreement with Taliban on "framework" of deal to end war

Will Donald Trump write an end to America’s longest war — or just the US involvement in it? Special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad tells the New York Times that he has reached the “framework of a deal” with Taliban negotiators to end US involvement in Afghanistan. They pledge to ensure that terrorists never use Afghan territory as a base for attacks on the West, and in return we promise to get out:

American and Taliban officials have agreed in principle to the framework of a deal in which the insurgents would guarantee Afghan territory is never used by terrorists, which could lead to a full pullout of American troops in return for larger concessions from the Taliban, the chief United States negotiator said Monday.

The negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, said those concessions must include the Taliban’s agreement to a cease-fire and to talk directly with the Afghan government, which the insurgents have persistently opposed in the past.

“We have a draft of the framework that has to be fleshed out before it becomes an agreement,” Mr. Khalilzad said in an interview with The New York Times in Kabul. “The Taliban have committed, to our satisfaction, to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals.”

It’s interesting, albeit necessary in the context of these talks, that the US insists on the Taliban being the guarantor of this demand. The Taliban — representing the leadership of the Pashtun tribes, which make up the plurality of Afghans — are the rebels. The government in Kabul would nominally be responsible for such a guarantee, and it would certainly be within their interest as well. Khalilzad is using the leverage of US troops to essentially demand that the Taliban deal fairly with the government in Kabul, as well as prevent any necessity for our return.

Kabul isn’t entirely pleased with these developments, likely because of that dynamic. They want guarantees that the Taliban and Pashtun will engage politically rather than through arms:

“I call on the Taliban to… show their Afghan will, and accept Afghans’ demand for peace, and enter serious talks with the Afghan government,” President Ashraf Ghani said in a televised address Monday.

US President Donald Trump’s clear eagerness to end America’s longest war has also weighed heavy on the discussions, and Ghani warned against rushing into a deal, citing violence following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

“We want peace, we want it fast but we want it with a plan,” he said.

“No Afghan wants foreign troops to remain in their country indefinitely. No Afghan wants to face suicide attacks in hospitals, schools, the mosques, and parks.”

Ghani has good reason to be concerned. Despite seventeen years of war, the Taliban have never been beaten into submission. They certainly have lost much ground since their flight out of Kabul, but their position has never been so bad as to capitulate. They have arguably grown stronger over the years since their first collapse, especially in the traditionally Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, but the Taliban realize that they can’t do any better than be rebels while the US remains in Afghanistan.

Once we’re gone, though, anything goes — especially if we leave without forcing a comprehensive peace plan. With the US out of the way, the Taliban can focus their fight on Ghani and the armed forces we’ve tried to stand up over the last 17 years, with only moderate success. And Ghani knows it, especially because even with the US Kabul’s writ only runs in roughly half the country:

The Taliban has long said that the removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan is a necessary requirement for a peace deal. They may have a sympathetic ear in President Trump, who is a critic of the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan — though he has been persuaded several times that the U.S. military still needs troops there.

But a full withdrawal has long hinged on whether Afghan government forces would be able to handle the threat from the Taliban without U.S. support. Even with U.S. support, the Afghan government is estimated to control only 55.5 percent of the country, according to the most recent report from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. …

It’s unclear whether the U.S. has faith that the Afghan government can either withstand pressure from the Taliban or convince the group to agree to a lasting cease-fire. Either way, critics of talks with the Taliban say they can’t be trusted not to work against the Afghan government.

“The Taliban have been playing the long game, hoping to wait the Americans out before defeating the inadequately trained Afghan forces,” Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, wrote in Foreign Policy in December.

For the moment, however, the US remains insistent that our withdrawal would be dependent on the Taliban’s engagement with Kabul. One US official confirmed that to the NYT, but a Taliban source said not so fast:

A senior American official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations, said the Taliban delegation had asked for time to confer with their leadership about the American requirements for the insurgents’ agreement to hold direct talks with the Afghan government and to a cease-fire. …

But in a sign that the conditions the Americans have demanded may be difficult to reach, the Taliban official said he did not see the agreement as being dependent on a cease-fire or direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The official declined to specify the Taliban’s position on these issues.

Hence Ghani’s plea, aimed more at the US than at the Taliban. We’re all the leverage he has.

If the US reaches a full agreement with the Taliban to withdraw from Afghanistan, it’s going to provide a boost to Donald Trump in the short term. He won election by appealing to those who see our continuing sacrifice in Afghanistan (and in Syria too) as a futile waste of time, money, and lives. Trump could claim to have done what his two predecessors could not and win a solid exit from an Afghan quagmire that broke two other empires over the last two centuries. If that holds up and the Taliban re-enter politics rather than civil war, Trump will have earned the accolades that will follow for taking the risk.

It’s not hard to see how this could go wrong, though. Even if the Taliban never allows al-Qaeda or ISIS to operate within their territory, they still see themselves as the legitimate government of Afghanistan that was forced out by foreign invaders. It might not take long before they take Kabul by force, creating the need for a rapid evacuation from the capital that could recall the images of Saigon in 1975 despite any American guarantees for the government we helped establish. Voters here may not care about that enough for it to damage Trump’s standing … until the next large-scale terror attack gets traced back to Afghanistan. That’s the risk — even if it’s one that the US will inevitably have to take, unless we want to commit to a 100-year presence in a country that has no other national-security significance.