The Trump Administration and the Taliban have announced the long-awaited signing a peace deal in Afghanistan this morning. Under the terms of the agreement, all US troops are to be withdrawn in 14 months.
Per Politico, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told reporters at a joint declaration in Kabul with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, “Thanks to President Trump’s leadership, we are finally making substantial progress toward ending our nation’s longest war. 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.”
Per the report, the hinges on the Taliban meeting several major commitments. These include breaking with al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other terrorist groups, and maintaining the reduction in violence seen over the last week as well as negotiating a separate power-sharing agreement and cease-fire with the Afghan government. If the conditions are met, the US will make an initial troop reduction from about 13,000 to 8,600 soldiers.
On March 10, the Taliban, called the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” in the agreement, will begin negotiations with the Afghan government. On that date, the US will also review its sanctions on the Taliban with the aim of eliminating them by August 27. If the Taliban meets its commitments, the US would withdraw all of its troops within 14 months.
While most Americans are understandably tired of the 19-year war, in its rush to declare victory and leave, the Trump Administration seems to be making the same mistakes that the Obama Administration made in leaving Iraq. Back in 2011, just ahead of presidential elections, Barack Obama unilaterally withdrew American forces from Iraq. The Obama Administration failed to negotiate a status of forces agreement that would have allowed an American contigency force to stay in the country. Three years later, American combat soldiers were back in Iraq to fight a growing ISIS insurgency.
If President Trump goes through with his plan to abandon our Afghan allies, it seems likely that Obama’s experience will be repeated. The Taliban will behave just long enough for the last American troops to leave and then restart their war against the government. The peace agreement represents less an end to the war than an intermission.
“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.”
However, the Taliban undoubtedly understands that Esper’s threat is hollow. If the US withdraws, there is very little chance that either Donald Trump or any of the Democratic candidates would order them back in, no matter what the Taliban does.
Those who argue that it is high time to bring the troops home should remember that it was the same Taliban who provided their country to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda to train for the September 11 attacks. There seems to be no evidence whatsoever that the Taliban would not resume these activities given the chance, not to mention killing and enslaving their own population.
While American nation-building in Afghanistan has been less than completely successful, we have succeeded at our most basic aim, that of carrying the war to our enemies and denying them a base from which to attack us. Whatever else you can say about our venture in Afghanistan, the US military has been successful at denying the jihadists a sovereign base of operations.
At this point, I’m skeptical that the Taliban will meet the objectives set forth by the Trump Administration. Even that might not keep American soldiers in the country, however. The president obviously wants to bring the troops home no matter the cost.
And while any loss of American life is tragic, the cost of staying in Afghanistan has been relatively low in recent years. In 2019, only 22 American soldiers were killed there, a far lower tally than just a few years ago. Financially, the presence in Afghanistan cost $52 billion in 2019, about once percent of the federal budget. This is less than the Coronavirus package currently being considered by Congress and far less than the economic impact of the September 11 attacks.
Withdrawing American troops doesn’t end wars. It just hangs our allies out to dry and leaves them at the mercy of our common enemies. We have seen that time and again from Vietnam to Syria.
George Orwell famously said, “The quickest way to end a war is to lose it.” Several American presidents from Nixon to Obama have found that statement to be true. President Trump may be about to learn the same lesson.