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Opinion Big questions surround the coming U.S.-Taliban peace deal

Secretary of state Mike Pompeo speaks at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday. (Michaela Handrek-Rehle/Bloomberg News)

MUNICH — This weekend in Germany, everyone expected the United States to announce a preliminary agreement with the Taliban to establish a path toward peace negotiations that could end the war in Afghanistan. But the announcement never came, leaving far more questions than answers.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, his Afghanistan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper met with scores of lawmakers and foreign officials on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference to discuss the pending agreement. A Taliban official said Monday it could be signed by the end of the month. The delay has prompted Afghan officials and U.S. lawmakers from both parties to wonder whether the deal is sound and whether crucial details will even be made public.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told a bipartisan delegation of U.S. lawmakers in Munich that the deal has four “secret annexes,” according to four people who were in the room. He also laid out several risks he sees in the deal, including concerns it could elevate the Taliban’s stature and boost other violent Islamist groups around the world.

“I sit with Ghani and I hear about four addendums that are secret,” Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told me. “He only spoke to one of them. The one that he spoke to is that the Taliban will disavow al-Qaeda, but they will not do it publicly.”

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Time magazine also reported that a draft of the agreement contained four “secret annexes.” They include an agreement that U.S. counterterrorism forces could stay in the country (while the Taliban states publicly they are all leaving), permissions for the CIA to operate in Taliban-held areas, and details of how the Taliban’s promises to reduce violence will be monitored and verified.

Two senior Trump administration officials disputed the Time report, as well as Ghani’s claims about “secret annexes,” as relayed by Menendez. The officials cautioned the deal isn’t final until announced, but said that if the Taliban does agree to break ties with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, it will be public and in the text.

“There are no secret side agreements on additional commitments,” a senior administration official told me. “When the agreement is signed, all the major commitments and expectations will be framed out in the actual agreement itself.”

The official acknowledged that some implementation and verification details might not be made public to protect national security procedures and thwart spoiler attempts. But the United States is not hiding anything crucial, the official insisted.

The State Department is about to capitulate to the Taliban, al-Qaeda’s longtime ally, in order to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, argues Rep. Liz Cheney. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Rafiq Maqbool/AP Photo and Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The official confirmed that the basic outline of the agreement is to soon begin a seven- to 10-day period during which the Taliban must produce a drastic reduction of violence. After that, talks including the Afghan government and the Taliban would commence on a political pact. If the process proceeds to the next phase, the United States would reduce its forces from around 13,000 now to 8,600 troops within 135 days.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), leader of the congressional delegation that met with Ghani, told me that any agreement that fails to secure the Taliban’s public commitment to break with al-Qaeda would not be sustainable and not be supported by either party.

“There’s a lot of suspicion in Congress. I’m willing to give it a try,” he said. “At the end of the day, the status quo ain’t going to work. Eighteen years down the road, it’s time to call the question.”

The Afghan government is walking a fine line between supporting the process and making its concerns known. President Trump has made clear his desire to withdraw U.S. troops, and the concern is the Taliban will simply return to violence and supporting terrorism after U.S. troops depart.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told me that any deal must not be based on trusting the Taliban. But, he said, the deal was necessary to begin the path toward direct inter-Afghan talks that could actually end the war. “It’s almost like a framing document that narrows the conflict and — if we succeed — winds it down in the future,” he said.

Several lawmakers I spoke with in Munich said that if Trump presents the deal as a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, rather than a reduction that leaves forces as an insurance policy until actual peace breaks out, it would be a disaster.

“I think a lot of how this works going forward depends on signaling out of Washington about whether we are turning our backs and going away or whether we have the Afghan government’s back,” Whitehouse said.

Several other large questions about the deal remain unanswered. Will the United States and the Taliban wait until the results of the recent Afghan elections are counted and released? Moving forward before the Afghan government has real legitimacy could undermine their leverage vis-a-vis the Taliban.

Additionally, will the Taliban agree to abide by the Afghan constitution, which guarantees not only democracy but also protections for women and minorities? Does the deal address Pakistan’s role in reducing violence or eliminating terrorist safe havens? If not — and there’s no indication it does — that could be a huge loophole.

Some of these questions could be answered when the text of the agreement is released. Some will not be answered for many months after that, if ever. And the greatest fear among members of Congress and others alike is that Trump will want to withdraw all U.S. troops before the election regardless of whether the safety of Afghanistan and the United States can be assured.

Read more:

David Ignatius: Trump’s Afghan gamble

Barnett R. Rubin: In long-suffering Afghanistan, this is a peace deal worth trying

David Ignatius: Uncertainty clouds the path forward for Afghanistan

Zarlasht Halaimzai: The United States’ fatal flaw in Afghanistan? Excluding Afghans.

Javid Ahmad: How the U.S. can help ensure Afghanistan’s peace process succeeds

Morwari Zafar: The road to peace in Afghanistan must begin with national reconciliation