Six months after Donald Trump declared talks with the Taliban “dead,” the U.S. has reached an historic deal with the Islamist group that could see all U.S. and NATO troops leave Afghanistan by mid-2021. U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban political leader Abdul Ghani Beradar signed the agreement in Doha on Saturday, which would see the withdrawal of the remaining 12,000 U.S. troops conditional on the Taliban fulfilling several commitments. The group has promised to cut ties with Al-Qaeda, maintain its current reduction in violent activities, and commence negotiations for a substantive peace deal with the Afghan government.
In Washington, D.C., President Trump said it was “time to bring our people back home,” and expressed confidence that the agreement represented a meaningful step forward in resolving one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. “I really believe the Taliban wants to do something to show we’re not all wasting time.” Having run for president promising to stop the U.S.’s “endless wars,” the deal represents a political victory for President Trump. Nevertheless, skepticism endures among those wary of Afghanistan’s long history of conflict. Michael O’Hanlon, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, described the deal to NPR as a “tiny step forward.” Even Mike Pompeo, President Trump’s Secretary of State, struck a more cautious tone: “This agreement will mean nothing… if we don’t take concrete actions on commitments and promises that have been made,” he warned.
Though peace talks are a welcome alternative to further violence, the skepticism is well-founded given Afghanistan’s delicate political situation. The Doha agreement requires the Taliban to engage with President Ashraf Ghani, but the militant group has repeatedly maligned him as an American puppet, and large parts of the country view him as an interloper following disputed elections last September. Even if the legitimacy of President Ghani and other government leaders is recognized, striking a broad agreement acceptable to all parties will be an enormous task. The Taliban’s desire for an Islamic Emirate – and their atrocious record on women’s rights – would appear irreconcilable with the modern democracy that the U.S. and Afghan leaders have sought to build since the invasion in 2001. Crucially, the Doha deal is contingent only on talks in Afghanistan commencing, and the U.S. has yet to clarify whether the withdrawal of troops will still be completed next year if an agreement has not been reached by that time. For discussions to be successful, continued oversight and involvement by the U.S. and other relevant parties is a necessity.
Since U.S. forces deposed the Taliban government in following the September 11 attacks in 2001, the ongoing war has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, and more than 50,000 members of the Afghan army and police have been killed since 2014. The Taliban have expanded their control over large parts of territory in recent years, but have been unable to hold major population centres. This stalemate forced the U.S. to abandon its policy of refusing to directly deal with the group, and a secret meeting was planned to be held at Camp David last September. That summit was cancelled after a car bomb attack in Kabul that killed twelve people, but negotiations quietly continued, paving the way for a seven-day “reduction of violence” by the Taliban late last month, and culminating in the signing of the deal in Doha.
For a country that has been at war for 40 years, even this small reprieve is encouraging. A permanent peace deal will only follow, however, if both the Afghan government and the Taliban are prepared to undertake complex and protracted negotiations in good faith. Much will hinge on whether the U.S. remains committed to seeing the peace process through. President Trump’s form in past peace negotiations – such as his meeting with Kim Jong-Un, which yielded plenty of positive headlines but few meaningful results – must change for that to happen.
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