Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Another Fine Mess

An end to America’s longest war is in sight. But don’t trust the Taliban.

By Michael Isenberg.

My sincere wishes that everyone is staying healthy and in good spirits during the coronavirus outbreak.

The crisis has overshadowed many other news stories, including a potentially huge one: On February 29, at a ceremony in Doha, Qatar, the US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Baradar signed an “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan.” In case you missed it, here is a brief primer on how we got to this point, what the provisions of the agreement are, and where we go from here.

People forget that the war in Afghanistan wasn’t like the war in Iraq. They’re both lumped together now, both “forever wars.” But Iraq was something we chose to do—foolishly, as it turns out. Afghanistan was something we had to do.

The Taliban, which ruled that country, allowed al-Qaeda to use it as a base of operations for terrorist attacks against the West, including the September 11 attacks in the United States. Three thousand people were killed. No responsible government can allow a threat against its own people like that to continue. And so we invaded and have been trying to figure out a way to get out of the mess ever since. But there didn't seem to be one, until now.

In an appearance on Fox and Friends, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talked about how the new agreement came about: “One of the reasons the Taliban entered into this agreement is because President Trump let us unleash on them. So over the last two and a half years we have been taking it to the Taliban under President Trump. It’s why they came to us and said we want to have a chance for a different course in Afghanistan.”

The negotiations, facilitated by the Qatari government, took place amid a general feeling among all parties that the military situation in Afghanistan had reached a stalemate, and that any progress required a negotiated settlement.

The negotiations haven't been a straight line. Concerned that the ongoing violence raging in the country was excessive, President Trump ordered US negotiators to walk away from the table last September, demanding that the Taliban reduce the level of violence before negotiations continue. Which they did, coming back in December. Indeed, in the week prior to the signing of the agreement, attacks in Afghanistan were reduced sixty to seventy percent, the lowest level in four years. Afghans took advantage of the respite to, among other things, hold bicycle races and dance in the streets.

The agreement itself is startlingly brief, only four pages. And it feels like half of those are filled up with the rather long-winded name the US uses for its opposite number: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban.” I can't help wondering how many hours of negotiation went into that.

The verbiage appears sixteen times, but still, there is some substance buried among the epithets. The main provisions are:

  • US Military Withdrawal: Within 135 days, the 13,000 troops currently in Afghanistan will be drawn down to 8,600, with the remainder to be withdrawn within fourteen months.

  • End to Taliban Support for Terrorist Operations Against the West: “The Taliban will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qa’ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies…[and] will prevent any group or individual in Afghanistan from threatening the security of the United States and its allies, and will prevent them from recruiting, training, and fundraising and will not host them in accordance with the commitments in this agreement.”

    In the view of Secretary Pompeo, this provision is the most significant accomplishment of the negotiations. “We did what President Obama had tried to do, which was to get the Taliban to make a public break with al-Qaeda.”

  • End to Sanctions: All US Sanctions against Taliban to be lifted by August 27.

  • Prisoner Exchange: “As a confidence building measure,” up to 5,000 prisoners of the Taliban and 1,000 prisoners “of the other side” are to be released by March 10. A “senior administration official” described these numbers as “aspirational.”

  • Negotiations on the Future of Afghanistan: Even with this agreement in place, and US forces withdrawn, Afghanistan remains a divided, unstable, and violent country. The agreement calls for talks on a political settlement to begin on March 10. A senior administration official explained, “The United States will be present, but this will be an intra-Afghan negotiation,” which will include not only the Afghan government and the Taliban, but also tribal representatives and women’s rights advocates.

    The prospect of an end to America’s longest war—US troops have been in Afghanistan over 18 years—is certainly something to hope for. As Secretary Pompeo said at the signing ceremony, “I am determined to ensure that there are fewer young men and women sitting at Walter Reed and there are fewer young men and women that never return home to their families. And that I am equally determined to make sure that there is never again a terror attack from Afghanistan.”

    And yet there are grounds to be concerned.

    The implementation of the agreement is off to a rocky start due to a number of problems:

    First, the government of Afghanistan is in disarray. A presidential election last fall pitted incumbent Ashraf Ghani against Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive of the unity government and former foreign minister. It ended in recriminations and accusations of fraud. After nearly six months, Mr. Ghani was finally declared the winner and took the oath of office on March 9. Mr. Abdullah simultaneously held his own inauguration in the next room.

    Amid the chaos, further aggravated by the coronavirus crisis, the government hasn’t got its team organized for the intra-Afghan negotiations—they were to have been in Oslo—and two weeks after the March 10 scheduled start, talks have yet to begin.

    Second, the agreement is between the United States and the Taliban; the Afghan government has not bought into all its provisions. The prisoner exchange is a particular sticking point. “The release of prisoners [is] not in the United States' authority,” Mr. Ghani said. “It is the authority of the Government of Afghanistan.” The New York Times reports that Mr. Ghani “would not release the prisoners without concessions from the Taliban, who have refused.”

    Finally, and most tragically, the reduction in violence during the hopeful days leading up to the agreement was short-lived. Attacks have surged since February 29. In fact, just on Friday, a Taliban raid on a government outpost in Zabul Province killed twenty-four Afghani security forces. Significantly, President Trump discussed his concerns about this with Mullah Baradar, the first contact ever between a US president and a Taliban leader.

    But even if these initial hurdles are overcome, this agreement is still deeply flawed.

    The issue is enforcement. We can trust the Taliban as we would adders fanged. And there is no enforcement mechanism spelled out in the four-page agreement to ensure they uphold their end of the agreement. In a letter to Secretary Pompeo, Liz Cheney and twenty-one other Republican members of Congress expressed their concern:

    The Taliban is a terrorist group that celebrates suicide attacks. Haibatullah Akhundzada, the overall leader of the Taliban, sacrificed his own son in a suicide bombing in 2017. Akhundzada’s top deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani, runs a network that specializes in devastating suicide bombings, including some of the most heinous attacks in the history of the war. The American people cannot rely on these terrorists to safeguard their security.

    The Taliban also has a history of extracting concessions in exchange for false assurances. They will accept nothing less than a full-scale U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as they seek to establish their totalitarian “Islamic Emirate.” Our withdrawal would then allow terrorist groups in Afghanistan to grow stronger and establish safe havens from which to plot attacks against us. Any promises the Taliban may have made to the U.S. related to counterterrorism cannot be trusted, not least because the group is a long-time ally of al-Qaeda.

    Secretary Pompeo is aware of the issues. “Look, we’re not naïve,” he said, “We all know who the Taliban are and what they have done to America.”

    To ensure enforcement, there are two additional parts to the agreement which aren’t going to be released to the public. State Department officials assure us that they contain “some confidential procedures for implementation and verification of the agreement itself,” but officials are uncomfortably vague and even contradictory as to what these procedures are or what would trigger them.

    The situation is not unlike the one in Vietnam almost half a century ago. The Nixon Administration negotiated a treaty to end what was then America’s longest war. The treaty was the best one they could have gotten under the circumstances—the administration's hand was considerably weakened by Democrats in Congress, who were on the verge of cutting off funding for the war. The resulting treaty was far from ideal: it allowed 160,000 North Vietnamese troops to remain in South Vietnam. President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam objected strenuously to this, but President Nixon brought him around with assurances that the US “will react strongly in the event the agreement is violated.”

    Trouble was, when North Vietnam violated the treaty two years later, Nixon was no longer president, and the US not only did not return to Vietnam, but Congress wouldn’t even approve funds for badly needed military supplies to enable the South Vietnamese to fight off the North themselves. Indeed, one freshman senator, a certain Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., wouldn’t even agree to fund the evacuation of Vietnamese refugees.

    The US decision to cut and run from Southeast Asia, and the resulting fall of South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, had far-reaching consequences. The governments that filled the vacuum were vengeful, cruel, and bloody. Globally, the Soviet Union concluded that the US was a paper tiger which didn’t have the stomach to stand by its allies. The Soviets launced a worldwide campaign of wars of “liberation.” With the US paralyzed by fear of "another Vietnam", a 100 million people lost their freedom and at least 5 million lost their lives as one country after another was taken over by the Marxists: Ethiopia (1974), Angola (1975), Benin (1975), Mozambique (1975), Nicaragua (1979), Grenada (1979), and, to bring the discussion full circle, Afghanistan (1978)—the Soviet invasion of that country set in motion the events that led to the September 11 attacks and the US invasion there.

    The agreement with the Taliban is good news. As in Vietnam, it’s probably the best agreement we could have gotten. Our troops—all volunteers—have traveled to one of the worst hellholes on earth and sacrificed more than anyone should have to in order to contain terrorism in Afghanistan. It’s time to bring them home to their families.

    But we need to avoid the mistakes of Vietnam. We need to keep a close eye on the Taliban and be prepared to go back if they violate the agreement. A tall order, but if we don’t, we’ll be in the same position again fifty years from now, trying to figure out how to extricate ourselves from another fine mess.

    Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

    Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

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