It took three-plus days, but the Taliban finally spoke publicly about the reported peace deal to end American involvement in the war in Afghanistan. A Taliban negotiator corroborated the US version of the process, claiming that negotiations had been completed and that only a brief period of a “favorable environment” was necessary to signing a final accord. The bigger question will be whether the Taliban can exercise enough discipline to ensure that this “favorable environment” extends long enough to get to the final signatures:
The Taliban said Monday that a peace deal with the United States will be signed by the end of the month, with the top U.S. negotiator describing himself as “cautiously optimistic” about the process.
Abdul Salam Hanafi, a senior Taliban leader and member of the political commission in Doha, Qatar, said in a video message shared with journalists that after negotiations, “both sides have initiated the final draft of the peace agreement. Now talks are concluded.” …
In his first public comments since the peace talks breakthrough, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief negotiator with the Taliban, said he’s “cautiously optimistic.”
“But I am realistic enough to know that there are lots of challenges ahead,” he added.
Khalilzad said that while he had received security guarantees from both the Afghan government and the Taliban, the potential remained for “spoilers” both inside Afghanistan and outside the country to upend months of diplomatic progress.
The “favorable environment” clearly refers to the seven-day “reduction in violence” deal announced by Defense Secretary Mark Esper last week. That will reportedly begin by this weekend, but it still hasn’t been clearly defined in public terms, either by level of hostilities still allowed or geographical limits. That’s because it’s primarily designed for deniability, the New York Times suggests:
The negotiators haven’t revised the basic transaction they set out last August — an American commitment to withdraw troops from Afghanistan for a Taliban promise not to allow the country to be used by transnational terrorists. Rather, they have added sweeteners to the bargain: As a Taliban concession, a seven day “reduction in violence” before the U.S. will sign the deal, possibly followed by further steps to keep violence down, and the release of prisoners demanded by the insurgents.
These measures may help build confidence in the plausibility of good-faith negotiation, but they are primarily face-saving devices. The violence reduction allows President Trump to reverse his repudiation of the talks and the Afghan government to stop insisting that it would not participate in the next stage of negotiations unless the Taliban declare and hold a cease-fire for at least a month.
“Reduction in violence” is a tricky concept — and hinging the finalization of an agreement on it puts the tentative deal on unsteady footing. The phrase is probably being used to skirt the Taliban’s rejection, for now, of a cease-fire, but its meaning is effectively the same as a temporary and limited cease-fire. (The scale and geographic spread of the reduction in violence has not yet been revealed.)
Its ambiguity seems designed to allow both sides to claim that the agreement is holding rather than provide an excuse to dump it, however. That’s not the only curious part of the Times’ analysis either. The NYT goes on to blame Trump for the collapse of talks last fall, calling it “fickleness” that could derail the peace process if it erupts again. That’s a rather strange reading for what took place last September:
If the violence reduction deal falls apart, hopes for a peace process would probably shatter. It’s unlikely the pieces would be picked up any time soon. Time and trust were lost after Mr. Trump called off talks in September. The United States seemed fickle because, in fact, it was. Another round of Trumpian fickleness could be an irredeemable error.
The “Trumpian fickleness” erupted because the Taliban were targeting American soldiers even while discussing the later stages of a peace accord. He broke off talks after the Taliban conducted a car bombing in Kabul that killed one of our troops. Let’s not forget that the reason John Bolton abruptly left the White House wasn’t because of “Trumpian fickleness” but because he thought Trump was far too eager to pursue peace with the Taliban. Trump had invited the Taliban to Camp David (or at least was considering it) when Bolton left, and only pulled the plug when US troops continued to be targeted.
This time, the Taliban probably have figured out that “reduction in violence” means no US combat deaths in Afghanistan, and not much else. If they’re announcing that they’re ready to sign the deal, then they’re likely prepared to ensure that outcome. They understand that Trump wants to withdraw from Afghanistan sooner rather than later, and that the killing of US soldiers now only delays that outcome. The sooner they allow Trump to maintain “face,” the quicker they will get back on their road to power in Afghanistan.
The US has another reason for insisting on this week-long semi-respite other than “face,” though. They are looking to test just how much control the Taliban actually has, and how much commitment they have to the process after a peace accord. It will take a few years to fully pull out of Afghanistan, and at least a few months to pull out of combat positions rationally and with proper coordination and security. If the Taliban can’t restrain their forces for even seven days, then there’s not much point in negotiating with them at all.
One way or the other, though, we are leaving the field, and leaving Afghanistan to the Afghans. All that’s still up for debate is whether it’s a controlled process during a period of relative peace, or a Soviet-style full retreat.