Donald Trump gave a cautiously optimistic take on Afghanistan Wednesday, saying negotiations with the Taliban were “proceeding well.”
“Fighting continues, but the people of Afghanistan want peace in this never-ending war,” Trump said. “We will soon see if talks will be successful.”
His comments followed a breakthrough announcement by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad Monday that talks between American and Taliban representatives in Qatar had yielded an agreement — in principle — on the framework of a peace deal.
Monday’s tentatively worded announcement marked the most significant sign of progress to date toward reaching a political settlement after nearly 18 years of war. But the framework faces obvious hurdles to reaching a lasting peace deal, experts said, most glaringly the Taliban’s refusal to sit down directly with the Afghan government, which it views as illegitimate. Others worry this peace deal isn't really about peace at all.
“The actual aim is to provide the United States with a means of escape,” said Andrew J. Bacevich, professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University. “All that Washington cares about at this point is getting out, without having to admit defeat.”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani warned in a televised address Monday that a deal without his government’s involvement could trigger a repeat of the catastrophic bloodshed that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
But even if the Taliban changes course and agrees to negotiate with the Afghan government, there are legitimate questions over whether the militant group can be trusted to follow through on their commitments.
“It really depends on how much can you trust the Taliban when they make these commitments,” said Aaditya Dave, a research analyst at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.
Experts have warned that a U.S. withdrawal could be disastrous for Afghanistan.
In an interview with Foreign Policy, Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan under President Barack Obama, predicted that the Taliban would retake the country if the U.S. withdraws in the next 18 months.
“The actual aim is to provide the United States with a means of escape.”
Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, agreed, adding that he was “hugely skeptical, even cynical” about the talks, which seemed “a fig leaf for a possible Taliban win.”
Ultimately, Crocker called the deal a “surrender” and likened the U.S. determination to leave without conceding defeat to its stance at the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, signed by Washington to bring an end to the Vietnam War. The U.S. subsequently ignored repeated violations of the accords, before a North Vietnamese offensive eventually rolled into the South two years later.
The current framework
Khalilzad, the chief U.S. negotiator in the talks with the militants, said the proposed framework for the deal — agreed to in principle — would entail the Taliban guaranteeing that Afghan soil is never used by terrorists, in exchange for a withdrawal of foreign troops.
According to Khalilzad, the agreement could lead to a full withdrawal of troops in return for the Taliban meeting key American demands: an extensive cease-fire, and direct talks with the Afghan government.
But a senior Taliban official with direct knowledge of the talks told the New York Times that he did not see the agreement as being conditional on a cease-fire, nor on direct talks between his militia and the government in Kabul.
“This is where the skepticism comes in,” Dave, a research analyst at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, told VICE News. He acknowledged the latest talks had shown promise but stressed that the Taliban’s consistent refusal to deal with the Afghan government remained a major red flag.
“You can’t conceive of a process in which these two sides aren’t talking,” he said. “Unless the Taliban changes tack on this, it’s going to be difficult for this to result in anything.”
“Even if a peace deal is reached on paper, which I doubt it will be, the Taliban won’t adhere to it. Once U.S. forces are gone, it will settle its accounts in Afghanistan.”
There are also unresolved questions about how the U.S. could maintain a counterterror presence in the country to tackle threats such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State group’s Afghan offshoot.
Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the conservative think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the Taliban's assurances that it would not allow terror groups to use Afghan soil should carry little weight, given the group has reneged on such undertakings before.
As recently as 2015, a massive al Qaeda training camp complex was found and destroyed by U.S. forces in Kandahar province’s Shorabak district. Earlier this week, CNN, citing a source with knowledge of the talks, reported that the Taliban were currently harboring a number of al Qaeda sleeper cells.
The Taliban’s track record proves it would be a “farce” to treat them as a reliable partner in negotiations, said Roggio.
“Any peace deal with Taliban won’t be worth the paper it’s written on,” he said. “Even if a peace deal is reached on paper, which I doubt it will be, the Taliban won’t adhere to it. Once U.S. forces are gone, it will settle its accounts in Afghanistan.”
Cover: Afghan security forces man at the site a day after an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. A Taliban suicide bomber detonated an explosive-laden vehicle in the capital Kabul on Monday evening, according to officials. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)