How to leave Afghanistan
4 Mar 2020|

After nearly two decades, 2,400 American soldiers killed, another 20,000 wounded and as much as US$2 trillion spent, the United States is understandably eager to withdraw from Afghanistan. President Donald Trump wants to be able to claim in advance of the November election that he fulfilled his campaign promise to end the country’s longest war, and his Democratic challengers share his desire to extricate the US from the conflict.

Towards that end, following a one-week period of relative calm, the US and the Taliban—the ‘students’ whose Sunni fundamentalist political and military movement has been fighting for power or ruling Afghanistan for a quarter of a century—signed an accord. One imagines it took as much time to settle on what to call the pact as on any of its provisions: it is the ‘Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America’.

As the accord’s name suggests, the government of Afghanistan is not a party to it, although the document does call for a political dialogue between the government and the Taliban to start by 10 March. The agenda for this intra-Afghan dialogue includes arranging for a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire as well as ‘the completion and agreement over the future political roadmap’ of the country. No details about a roadmap are set forth.

The agreement outlines two sets of commitments. The US has pledged to withdraw one-third of its approximately 13,000 troops in 135 days, and the remaining 8,600 before the end of April 2021. America’s coalition partners would withdraw their troops by then as well. The US further agreed to withdraw all ‘private security contractors, trainers, [and] advisors’ from the country and work towards removing sanctions on the Taliban and releasing Taliban prisoners.

For its part, the Taliban has committed to doing all it can to ensure that terrorist organisations don’t use Afghan territory to target the US or its allies. The Taliban also agreed not to cooperate with or support individuals associated with such groups, including al-Qaeda, which was based in Afghanistan when the Taliban were in power and used the country to train those responsible for the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US that killed nearly 3,000 people. The Taliban did not agree, however, to any limits on their military capabilities now or in the future. Nor did they agree to recognise the legitimacy of Afghanistan’s current government.

The accord is ambitious (and then some), in the hope that political arrangements can be sorted out before the withdrawal of American troops. With respect to elections, power sharing, a constitution, and the role of religion and the rights of women within Afghan society, the agreement is silent.

It’s also worth noting that the Afghan government in recent days has raised questions about its preparedness to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners. More important, the relative calm already has been broken by renewed Taliban armed attacks. None of this bodes well for the future of the agreement.

But whatever happens from this point on, it is essential that the US sign a separate pact with Afghanistan’s government. It is essential that that agreement specify what criteria must be met and what conditions must exist before US troops withdraw. And it is essential that the US promise to provide the Afghan government with long-term economic, diplomatic, intelligence and military support—something unfortunately made more difficult by the commitment to the Taliban to withdraw all advisers from the country.

Such a side agreement would constitute a hedge against the all-too-real possibility that the Taliban’s pledges are tactical, designed to bring about America’s military withdrawal rather than peace or an end to terrorism. A commitment to the Afghan government would also reassure its leaders and citizens that they are not being abandoned like the Kurds in Syria. America’s friends and allies everywhere would welcome such a commitment.

In an ideal world, the US would also require that the Taliban end their use of Pakistani territory as a military sanctuary. The problem with this and other sensible demands is that the US has done much to weaken its own leverage with the Taliban by its obvious desire to end its military presence in Afghanistan.

It is possible that calm in Afghanistan can be restored nonetheless, that intra-Afghan talks bear fruit, and that a ceasefire materialises. This would of course be welcome. But it is more likely that the US–Taliban agreement to bring peace to Afghanistan does nothing of the sort. In that case, the US and its coalition partners would be wise to fall back on a strategy that protects their core interests, above all ensuring that Afghanistan does not once again become a haven for terrorists planning and carrying out attacks against the West.

Such a strategy would require keeping several thousand troops in the country to continue to build and train the Afghan security forces and to conduct select counterterrorism missions. For some, this would be too expensive. But, given what’s at stake, it would be a price worth paying. It would not end the ‘forever war’ that has been Afghanistan—but nor, almost certainly, will the just-signed agreement.