The US-Taliban Deal and Its Shaky Aftermath

The deal negotiated between the US government and the Afghan Taliban leadership and signed this weekend in Doha, Qatar, is a diplomatic achievement that establishes an exit strategy for US forces in the longest war in US history. But the mood in Washington and Kabul is not celebratory. The sobering reality is filled with uncertainties about the true intentions of the Taliban, diverse spoilers and likely resistance to the deal’s implementation by the government of President Ashraf Ghani.

The US negotiator and former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, deserves credit for getting the often-rocky negotiation to the finish line. Since the process began in 2013 with the opening of the diplomatic Taliban office in Qatar, it has faltered many times over unfilled promises about ceasefires and each side’s core principles: the US has seen talks with the Taliban as a stepping stone to a more comprehensive intra-Afghan peace process, while the Taliban have focused on the withdrawal of US forces to reset its relations with the Kabul government or to repudiate its ties to Al Qaeda. And President Trump was the most recent disruptor, scuttling a 2019 signing ceremony by insisting that he be in charge. In a moment of jaw-dropping political insensitivity, he proposed that he host the Taliban in the US on September 11, 2019.

Despite the odds, there is now an agreement for the gradual withdrawal of nearly all the 12,000 US troops remaining in country. And that may be the full measure of the US interest and desired outcome, one that Trump will highlight as one of his national security achievements. The full implementation is linked to various performance criteria, and the most immediate obstacle may be the unwillingness of the Ghani government in Kabul to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, a pledge the US committed to “facilitating.” Politicians and pundits are scrambling to learn more about secret annexes, which may spell out circumstances in which US troops remain for specific missions, but the focus needs to be on the capacity of the Afghan political actors to support this process.

For the Taliban, the agreement must be seen as a great success that legitimizes them as an essential player, and as the only Afghan actor that may have achieved the withdrawal of foreign forces. One can only imagine a future campaign slogan promoting the heroic Taliban protecting Afghan sovereign rights. Some believe that the Taliban have mellowed over the years, and should they become part of the formal political system in Kabul, as an opposition or even back in power, they might support more modern policies on education and the status of women. But that is a big unknown, and victims of Taliban violence across Afghan society are reacting negatively to the status conferred on the movement by the US deal.

The government in Kabul, already stressed by a second contested presidential election between Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, has decidedly mixed views about the deal. Ghani has expressed deep dismay that the US, ostensibly his ally, accepted Taliban conditions that excluded government officials from the negotiations. He told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on March 1 that the Taliban cannot dictate conditions on Kabul. He explained that the release of prisoners, for example, will require a lengthy process, and that his government still wants to be persuaded that the Taliban will respect a full ceasefire, sever its ties to all terrorist organizations and drug cartels, declare its support for Afghan civilian rights, and more. The deal signed in Doha could well collapse from the weight of the differences between Kabul and the Taliban on all matters of governance and the political values of the state.

For the US, should this agreement – not a treaty requiring ratification by the US Senate – actually permit the desired withdrawal of US and NATO forces, it will find its place in the canon of national security literature as another war that did not produce a military victory. Virtually every war since World War II, with the notable exception of the Gulf War of 1990-91, failed to achieve a clear military victory and a sustained political settlement. Afghanistan will join Vietnam as a long, tragic engagement where the US lost sight of an achievable goal.

American political leaders over nearly two decades were lured into an expanded set of political objectives that kept shifting the goalposts for the US armed forces. Defeating Al Qaeda and removing the Taliban from power was achieved in late 2001, but in the flush of success, American leaders wanted to invest in making Afghanistan a more stable and modern place, which would not fall prey to extremism again.

The lesson of this deal is that Afghanistan – deeply underdeveloped and socially conservative – has to find its own political equilibrium. US-Afghan relations are now facing a dramatic recalibration.

Ellen Laipson, a former vice chair of the US’s National Intelligence Council, is currently director of the international security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. She is a former president and CEO of the Stimson Center in Washington. Prior to this, Laipson spent a quarter century in government service.