There are two likely outcomes of the recently signed U.S. peace deal with Afghanistan’s Taliban. One is that a withdrawal of U.S. forces will bring a short-term reduction in violence. The second is that the U.S. will leave behind a political mess so severe that violence prevails for the foreseeable future.
Although several details of the peace deal signed on February 28 by U.S. and Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar, remain secret, a time table was released for U.S. troops to begin withdrawing ten days after the signing of the agreement. The U.S. has already announced the beginning of the troop withdrawal and its plan to reduce of troops — even as it conducted an air strike on Taliban forces just a few days ago.
Even under the current chaotic circumstances on the ground in Afghanistan, a draw down of U.S. troops is a good thing. In 2019, the United Nations documented more civilian deaths at the hands of U.S. forces and their Afghan government allies than the Taliban. Afghans, weary of the broken promises of successive U.S. presidents, are justifiably angry about the loss of lives from air strikes, which have been devastating families and communities for nearly two decades.
Meanwhile, the Afghan government, which the U.S. helped set up in the aftermath of the 2002 Taliban defeat, was entirely left out of the negotiations. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani threw a wrench into the works hours after the agreement was signed by saying that he did not commit to releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners as required by the U.S.-Taliban agreement. Eventually, he capitulated and agreed to release 1,500 prisoners in the first stage of a two-part process. But now Taliban representatives have rejected that approach, saying all 5,000 should be released at once. Added to this is the political complication of Mr. Ghani’s rival Abdullah Abdullah also declaring that he is the winner of recent elections and swearing himself in as President of Afghanistan at the same time as the incumbent.
Still, there may be cause for hope: The United Nations Security Council unanimously supports the U.S.-Taliban deal. Although Donald Trump is now being commended for signing a deal that may end the war — including by some on the left — he first made things far worse. When he took office, Trump gave a green light to the U.S. military in Afghanistan, allowing it broad powers to unleash violence in a contrast to the approach of Barack Obama’s administration during its final year, when it tried to reduce civilian casualties. The Associated Press reported in 2019, “the U.S. conducted more bombings and drone strikes in Afghanistan in August than in any previous month this year — 783, compared to 613 in July and 441 in June.”
Why did Trump do it? As recently as last November, Trump’s cruel escalation of the war was seen a calculated method of leverage against his opponents with one defense expert explaining, “The logic is that the Taliban may be more likely to agree to a peace deal acceptable to the United States and the Afghan government if the Taliban believe they can’t win the war in Afghanistan.”
Whether or not that calculation has worked is yet to be seen. Already the US military is reporting that the Taliban are not keeping, “their part of the bargain.” Marine General Frank McKenzie, the US commander for the Middle East and Afghanistan told Congress this week that Taliban forces, “need to keep their part of the bargain, and they are continuing attacks.”
Trump is not being entirely honest about his dealings with the Taliban. He had an historic phone call with a Taliban representative named Abdul Ghani Baradar – the first time a US president had ever spoken directly with a member of the group. Trump later explained to reporters that the 35-minute call consisted of a, “good, long conversation,” during which Baradar apparently assured him that, “they want to cease the violence.” Hours later, Taliban forces hit Afghan government targets and were then met with U.S. air strikes. It turns out the Taliban had agreed not to target U.S. forces, but made no such agreement about striking the Afghan government.
Trump is also keeping certain “secret annexes” of the peace deal from the public. The New York Times explained that, “Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, in congressional testimony, appeared unaware of — or seemed unwilling to discuss — the secret annexes just days before the agreement was signed.” But the Taliban has read those annexes that apparently cover, “a timeline for what should happen over the next 18 months, what kinds of attacks are prohibited by both sides and, most important, how the United States will share information about its troop locations with the Taliban.” In response to a request for information from the Times, the U.S. State Department issued a statement saying the annexes had to be kept secret because, “the movement of troops and operations against terrorists are sensitive matters.” By “terrorists” the State Department now means the Islamic State or ISIS – not the militant group that the U.S. has spent 18 years directly fighting under the auspices of the “War on Terror.”
Still, if the deal actually results in the U.S. completely withdrawing from Afghanistan, perhaps Trump’s calculations will turn out to be right. That is a big “if,” however. According to Gen. McKenzie, although the U.S. forces are expected to be reduced to 8,600 by this summer, “Conditions on the ground will dictate if we go below that. If conditions on the ground are not permissive, my advice would not be to continue that reduction.”
The U.S. troop withdrawal would mean one less armed force putting Afghan civilians in the crossfire of war. But peace between the Afghan government and the Taliban is hardly assured. The recent election results show that even within the Afghan government, there is no assurance of unity or harmony. Nearly 20 years of a U.S.-led war have left Afghanistan – already a war-torn nation in 2001 – devastated beyond imagination. The predictable jockeying for power as the U.S. withdraws, and a potential resurgence of ISIS, could easily plunge Afghanistan into a new wave of violence that American politicians will simply ignore.
Nothing was won in Afghanistan and everything that was lost was wasted: lives, money and humanity. If any lesson emerges from the wasteland of the longest official war the U.S. has ever waged, it ought to be a reflection and accounting of the deep costs of the conflict, and an assurance that such a war will never again be embarked upon.
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV,…