by Hans Izaak Kriek*
After Trump’s peace plan for the Middle East, the American president scores again. And it seems good for his re-election in November.
The United States signed a historic peace deal with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, Saturday that officials hope will mark the beginning of the end of America’s longest war. Under the deal, all US troops would withdraw from Afghanistan in 14 months if the Taliban meet their commitments.
The signing between Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban officials will set the stage for the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan after 19 years of violence that has killed more than 3,500 Americans and coalition troops and tens of thousands of Afghans since the U.S. invasion following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
At the height of the war, more than 100,000 American troops were in the country and tens of thousands of others from the U.S.-led NATO coalition.
In remarks in Doha, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lauded the peace agreement and the Taliban’s compliance with a seven-day reduction in violence that paved the way for the accord. But he cautioned that an enduring peace is contingent on the militant group fulfilling its promise to cut ties with al Qaeda and other terrorist groups and sit down for intra-Afghan talks with Kabul’s government.
“This agreement will mean nothing, and today’s good feelings will not last, if we don’t take concrete actions on commitments and promises that have been made,” Pompeo said. “I know there will be a temptation to declare victory. But victory, victory for Afghans, will only be achieved when they can live in peace and prosper.”
Pompeo called on the Taliban in particular to ‘embrace’ the progress made on rights for women and girls in Afghanistan.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper traveled to Kabul on Saturday to appear beside Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg for a joint declaration.
“Thanks to President Trump’s leadership, we are finally making substantial progress toward ending our nation’s longest war,” Esper said. “Today’s release of the Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States marks a pivotal moment in the peace process.”
But the agreement is only the first step to an enduring peace for the war-torn country. The U.S. withdrawal hinges on the Taliban’s fulfillment of major commitments that have hobbled peace agreements in the past, including breaking with al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, and maintaining the reduction in violence seen over the last week, Esper said. It is also dependent on difficult negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government over power-sharing and a lasting cease-fire.
If these conditions are met, the U.S. will initially reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan from roughly 13,000 to 8,600, a senior administration official told reporters on Thursday ahead of the signing.
Esper stressed that the withdrawal is ‘conditions-based’. “However, should the Taliban fail to honor their commitments, they will forfeit their chance to sit with fellow Afghans and deliberate on the future of their country,” Esper said. “Moreover, the United States would not hesitate to nullify the agreement.” The United States has set up a ‘monitoring and verification process’ on the ground to ensure the Taliban are meeting their commitments, the official said.
The State Department on Saturday announced that the Taliban will begin negotiations with the Afghan government on March 10, which will include a “permanent and comprehensive” ceasefire. The U.S. will also with the two sides to begin releasing prisoners by that date.
Also, on March 10, the U.S. will review its sanctions against the Taliban with the goal of ending them by Aug. 27. The agreement refers to the Taliban as the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’.
Senior officials in the military and intelligence communities are concerned that the Taliban will not hold up its end of the deal. Many fears the administration “is putting too much stock in the promises of the Taliban and they will simply sign anything to get us to leave,” one former Trump administration official said.
The agreement follows a seven-day reduction in violence across the country that began Feb. 22. It comes at a tense political moment in Afghanistan, after a Sept. 28 election between Ghani and Afghanistan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah plagued by allegations of rigging and other irregularities. The Independent Election Commission said on Feb. 18 that Ghani had won the election, but Abdullah rejected the results and vowed to appoint a parallel government.
At the White House, Trump told reporters the U.S. deserves credit for having helped Afghanistan take a step toward peace. He spoke cautiously of the deal’s prospects for success and cautioned the Taliban against violating their commitments.
“We think we’ll be successful in the end,” he said, referring to all-Afghan peace talks and a final U.S. exit. He said he will be “meeting personally with Taliban leaders in the not-too-distant future,” and described the group as ‘ired of war’.
He did not say where or why he plans to meet with Taliban leaders. He said he thinks they are serious about the deal they signed but warned that if it fails, the U.S. could restart combat.
*International political commentator for European Business Review and editor-in-chief at Kriek Media International