- The Washington Times
Sunday, March 1, 2020

As many questions as answers surround the Trump administration’s landmark peace deal with the Taliban. As the dust settled Sunday, critics from Capitol Hill to Kabul began poking holes in the four-page document designed to be America’s exit plan from its longest war in history.

While top administration officials and congressional allies touted the Afghanistan peace pact as a necessary step, the exact path forward for the U.S. remains murky at best, as do expectations of the Taliban after achieving their own historic victory by being formally recognized by Washington as a legitimate political body.

Key lawmakers blasted the deal for an apparent lack of clear enforcement mechanisms to ensure that the Taliban live up to their word and do not collaborate with terrorist groups. Others warned that the premature withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan could invite disaster.

The deal calls for a quick drawdown of U.S. forces from 13,000 to about 8,600. The remainder are expected to leave within 14 months if the agreement holds. Some analysts predict that the U.S. ultimately will feel compelled to leave some troops in the country, thus undermining a core tenet of the deal and perhaps leading to another wave of violence.

Rifts immediately emerged in Kabul on Sunday between the Trump administration and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government. The peace deal calls for the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners over the next 10 days, but Mr. Ghani said his government agreed to no such thing.

“The government of Afghanistan has made no commitment to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners,” the Afghan leader said, according to Al Jazeera.

The agreement explicitly states that the U.S. will “work with all relevant sides on a plan” to release the prisoners by March 10, the date the Taliban agreed to begin formal talks with Mr. Ghani’s government in Oslo.

18 years in the making

The prisoner aspect is just one piece of the much broader, first of its kind deal, more than 18 years after President George W. Bush ordered a U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban government in Afghanistan and crush al Qaeda in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

After nearly two decades of failed efforts to wind down the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, the Trump administration in 2018 began unprecedented formal talks with the Taliban in an effort to make good on President Trump’s promise to stop “endless wars” in the Middle East.

Those talks were derailed multiple times after Taliban attacks targeted American personnel in Afghanistan, but they culminated Saturday when the U.S. officially signed the deal during a meeting with Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar. Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. special representative to Afghanistan, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban movement, signed the agreement.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was at the meeting but did not personally sign the deal. Also Saturday, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper appeared with Mr. Ghani and NATO leaders in Kabul, where they hailed the agreement as a lasting step toward peace.

The multipronged pact requires the Taliban to vow to never again associate with terrorist groups or allow Afghanistan to be used as a home base for extremist groups, though it does not explicitly require them to denounce al Qaeda. The Taliban also agreed to meet for the first time with Mr. Ghani’s government with a “permanent and comprehensive” nationwide cease-fire at the top of the agenda.

In exchange, the U.S. will begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, hash out a plan to release Taliban prisoners, lift economic sanctions on Taliban leaders and take other steps.

But Mr. Pompeo stressed that the U.S. has no illusions about the trustworthiness of the Taliban.

“Don’t trust anything. We’re going to deliver. It’s about actions. The agreements set out, the conditions that set out the space,” he told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “But no, this deal doesn’t depend upon trusting anyone. It has a deep, complex, well-thought-out, multimonth negotiated verification complex and mechanism by which we can observe and hold every member of the agreement accountable.”

Some foreign policy analysts predict that key portions of the agreement will fail.

“The Taliban’s expectation under the deal is that all U.S. troops will withdraw within 14 months. When this does not happen, as is highly likely, either a unified Taliban organization will seek retribution and cancel the U.S.-Taliban deal, or a disgruntled rank and file will defect and increase the level of violence in Afghanistan,” said Adam Wunische, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and an Afghanistan War veteran.

‘We don’t know what’s going to happen’

Just after the deal was signed, Mr. Trump spoke at the White House and revealed plans to meet with Taliban leaders in the near future.

He congratulated “all those incredible people who’ve worked for so long on our endless war in Afghanistan.”

“There hasn’t been a moment like this. We’ve had very successful negotiations. We think they’ll be successful in the end,” the president said. “The other side is tired of war.”

Critics say it’s not entirely clear how the U.S., NATO or the Afghan government will ensure that the Taliban are meeting their concrete commitments to not work with al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, especially if all American troops exit the country. Those same critics say the U.S. could be making a deadly mistake.

The agreement “with the Taliban includes concessions that could threaten the security of the United States,” said Rep. Liz Cheney, Wyoming Republican and House Republican conference chairwoman. “Releasing thousands of Taliban fighters, lifting sanctions on international terrorists, and agreeing to withdraw all U.S. forces in exchange for promises from the Taliban, with no disclosed mechanism to verify Taliban compliance, would be reminiscent of the worst aspects of the Obama Iran nuclear deal.”

Other key lawmakers supported the deal in principle but expressed deep doubts about the Taliban.

“I have serious reservations that they can act as legitimate partners,” said Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Strong monitoring and enforcement mechanisms as well as appropriate snapback measures must be ready if they do not follow through.”

Some Democrats also supported the agreement’s goals but said they simply don’t trust Mr. Trump or his motivations.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, a Democratic presidential candidate, told CBS on Sunday. “One of the difficulties, to be very honest … in dealing with Trump, it is very hard to believe anything that he says, whether it’s the coronavirus, whether [it is] what’s going on in Afghanistan.”

Senior State Department officials briefed reporters last week and spoke in blunt terms about what could happen if the Taliban sully the intra-Afghanistan talks.

“This could all blow up. We know this, right?” the official said, adding that the reaction from the administration will be harsh if the Taliban do not adhere to the commitments they have made.

“We’ll just start killing them again if that’s what happens,” the official said.

⦁ Guy Taylor and Tom Howell contributed to this report.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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