According to teases leaked by the American negotiating team, it appears that an interim Afghanistan peace deal may be in the works between Washington and the Taliban. Details are far from clear to date. But the main contours of any agreement seem to be a renouncing of extremists by the Taliban, the withdrawal of several thousand American and NATO troops, together with an indefinite partial ceasefire, or at least a sustained reduction in violence by all parties. If that is indeed the deal — it’s not yet clear if the ceasefire would happen early on, as it must for the idea to make any sense from a U.S. and Afghan government perspective — there may be promise to the concept, provided that not only the Taliban but the Pakistani government support it as well. These initial steps would be followed by negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government over some future type of power-sharing, after which the preponderance of the remaining U.S. and other foreign forces would leave the country as well. It is crucial that the remaining U.S. forces not withdraw until a power-sharing arrangement has been well-established.
I have been highly skeptical of this year’s peace talks, even though they have been led by the wily and wise Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad (an Afghan-born American who was President George W. Bush’s envoy to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the United Nations). The Taliban’s abject unwillingness to meet with representatives of the elected and constitutionally-legitimated government of President Ashraf Ghani, together with the belief of the Taliban leadership that America wants out and will use the peace talks as a fig leaf to cover a retreat from the country, provided grounds for extreme caution. President Trump’s announcement last December that he would soon cut the U.S. troop presence in the country in half, unconditionally and abruptly, was one of the two issues that apparently sparked the resignation of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis — and revealed the president’s apparent true intentions about a mission he never really supported in the first place.
The incipient deal does indeed contain potential pitfalls. Moving several thousand troops out of Afghanistan is a costly and difficult process that is hard (though not impossible) to reverse. By contrast, carrying out a ceasefire is something the Taliban can easily do for a few days, or weeks, or months, and then find some excuse to violate once the U.S. forces have drawn down. According to reports, the current number of GI’s might be cut from perhaps 14,000 to 8,000, more or less; the overall foreign troop presence including other NATO nations might decline from about 20,000 to 12,000 or so.
But this deal, insofar as it goes, would be OK. It would hardly merit a Nobel Prize in the first instance, and could in fact fall apart — we should recognize that possibility with eyes wide open. Yet it is still an acceptable risk, if the reports of its main parameters are in fact correct.
First of all, cutting the NATO troop presence by say 40 percent, while militarily disadvantageous in some ways, is not reckless. Doing so would return American and NATO force totals to roughly the level President Trump inherited from President Obama back in early 2017, or perhaps a bit less.
Some elements of the current Operation Inherent Resolve mission, commanded by the very able American special forces officer, General Scotty Miller, would of course have to be curtailed under such an approach. Notably, advisory teams working in the field with Afghan units could probably not be sustained in most cases with such a force package. But the United States and its partners could sustain their main bases and airfields near Kabul, Kandahar, and perhaps one or two other main sites in the east and north of the country at these numbers. Central training missions could be continued for Afghan army and police personnel. And very importantly, enough intelligence, drone, and commando presence could be retained to keep up pressure on al-Qaida and any ISIS elements that remain in the country or just over the border with Pakistan.
Second, violence is the main instrument of influence that the Taliban possess, and any deal that required them to stop it comprehensively and indefinitely would therefore, for as long as it lasted at least, achieve what has effectively been our principal objective in Afghanistan all along. In a conflict where as many as 20,000 Afghans have been dying per year, most of them security forces or Taliban fighters, this would be welcome news. The longer it lasted, the more it could allow the Afghan government and economy to gradually stabilize, strengthening the nation. Initial reports that the deal might have included a general ceasefire indeed proved too good to be true. It now appears, based on an August 18 Washington Post story, that the Taliban are promising a reduction in violence instead. That reduction will have to be quite significant and sustained, but if it is, the interim deal might indeed pass reasonable muster, at least for a time.
Third, from what is known of the deal to date, no further cuts in NATO forces would be promised or planned until some kind of deal emerged between President Ghani and the Taliban. Admittedly, finding a deal will be very difficult considering the parties’ animosity towards each other — given all the blood that has been spilled, and how very different their visions may be for the country. Moreover, both sides think they are in positions of strength for those talks: Ghani, because he is the internationally-backed leader of the country, and because his country’s security forces, aided by NATO to be sure, still control areas of the country where about 60% of the population lives, including all the country’s big cities; the Taliban, because they have been gradually gaining territory over the years and because the West is tired of this war and clearly wants out. Further, the Taliban view Ghani as a stooge of the international community who cannot survive in power on his own.
But it is possible, as retired Colonel Chris Kolenda and I have written, to imagine formalizing any ceasefire by effectively freezing forces in place, deploying a U.N. peacekeeping mission to observe their behavior, and over time stitching the different units into some kind of national command authority. It is also possible to grant Taliban leaders some positions in a central government, legitimate them as a political party (though it is highly doubtful they could win a presidential election, even if delayed until next year), and appoint some of their more “moderate” leaders to run certain towns or districts in the country’s south and east where their fellow Pashtun communities predominate. Finally, if any deal allowed the United States and foreign partners access to at least one or two bases, with a modest residual troop presence, we could keep an eye on al-Qaida and ISIS even after a settlement and further troop withdrawal.
The whole idea admittedly sounds like a 50/50 proposition at best. But the risks are manageable and the concept is probably worth a try — provided that there is no complete U.S. withdrawal until a durable and verifiable Afghan power-sharing agreement has taken root.