In principle, there is nothing wrong with the United States negotiating directly with the Taliban. A limited deal committing all sides to reducing violence as the United States withdrew some troops and the Taliban started talks with the Afghan government would have been a good thing: It would have tested the Taliban’s intentions before committing to a full U.S. withdrawal and preserved negotiating leverage for the United States’ Afghan allies. Based on the Trump administration’s briefings, that’s what many of us in Congress believed was in the works.
On Feb. 15, during a meeting attended by more than a dozen members of Congress at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, I asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about a rumor that the deal might also commit the Afghan government to releasing Taliban prisoners — a huge upfront concession that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani understandably did not want to make. Pompeo told us categorically that the deal would say nothing about releasing prisoners.
And yet the U.S.-Taliban deal released on Feb. 29 says that “up to” 5,000 Taliban fighters held by the Afghan government “will be released by March 10” — before the start of intra-Afghan negotiations. If Ghani, who had no part in the making of the deal, does not release these prisoners, the Trump administration will have given the Taliban a pretext to say that the Afghan president is violating the agreement and thus to refuse to talk with him.
The rest of the announced deal is no better. It does not require the Taliban to stop killing Afghan troops and civilians, only to stop shooting at Americans as we leave the country. The deal does not commit the Taliban to break fully with al-Qaeda, only to prevent it from attacking the United States from Afghan soil. There is no mention of preventing al-Qaeda from attacking us from the parts of Pakistan where the Taliban is also present.
The deal includes no verification measures or agreed penalties for noncompliance. And it commits the United States to withdrawing all troops from Afghanistan within 14 months even if the war rages on. If the Taliban refuses to negotiate in good faith with the Afghan government, we still leave. If it continues to murder Afghan civilians, we still leave. This virtually guarantees that the Taliban will continue to kill, not talk.
In short, this is not a peace agreement. It is a fig leaf for withdrawal and for abandoning our Afghan allies.
I recognize that most Americans are tired of U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan after more than 18 years of war. I am, too. But I see only two honest alternatives.
The first would be to do the one thing we’ve never tried: stop setting deadlines for departure and simply say that we’re willing to keep some troops in Afghanistan for as long as the Afghans want to partner with us, as we have in Germany, South Korea and elsewhere. Their mission could be limited to training the Afghan military, not engaging in combat. But such a commitment would show the Taliban that it can’t win by waiting us out. It would increase the possibility of a negotiated settlement that preserves the gains Afghans have made in democracy and women’s rights. Ironically, committing to stay could make it easier to leave safely for good.
Keep in mind that the troops whom President Trump has promised to withdraw are probably not “coming home” but staying in the region, ready to return if Afghanistan becomes a haven for terrorists again. Going back under those circumstances would be much more dangerous than staying today.
The second alternative: decide that we truly no longer need to be in Afghanistan, whatever the consequences. If so, then we should just leave. Why give the Taliban the added gift of forcing the Afghan government to release its fighters, or of lifting United Nations sanctions against Taliban leaders, as the deal also promises? Why also legitimize these terrorists with presidential phone calls?
The worst option is to tell the American people a fairy tale about peace so that we feel less guilty about leaving, or so Trump can brag that he made a deal. Let’s accept responsibility for all we’ve done in Afghanistan, for good and ill, and keep working with our allies there. Or let’s leave and let the Afghans decide their future themselves.