The signing of the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement Saturday in Qatar is a hopeful and historic moment, but the Trump administration knows full well that the security situation across Afghanistan is shaky at best.
That’s why Secretary of State Mike Pompeo informed Taliban leaders that he would “closely watch the Taliban’s compliance with their commitments and calibrate the pace of our withdrawal to their actions.”
The peace agreement is designed to end the longest war in American history, which began after Al Qaeda terrorists using Afghanistan as their base to stage the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States that killed almost 3,000 people.
The agreement calls for U.S. forces in Afghanistan to be reduced from the current 13,000 to 8,600 in three or four months, after which there could be further U.S. troop withdrawals if the Taliban keep their commitments to stop backing Al Qaeda and make peace a reality in Afghanistan.
As it turns out, the seven-day “reduction in violence” in Afghanistan preceding the signing of the peace agreement almost unraveled. Two motorcycle vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attacks took place in Kabul last week. The attacks were immediately disavowed by the Taliban and claimed by ISIS.
U.S. Army Gen. Scott Miller, who commands the NATO support mission and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, ultimately ruled in favor of continuing with the peace process. Pompeo reiterated Saturday that the Taliban must “keep up the fight to defeat ISIS” in Afghanistan.
It’s naïve to think Afghanistan will settle down and become what the military calls a “permissive environment” anytime soon.
President Ashraf Ghani’s government does not control the rural areas. ISIS is still out there, along with a dozen other non-Taliban terrorist groups. And Iran has been meddling in Afghanistan across their common border for years. However, the truce put the Taliban to the test and they passed.
Intra-Afghan talks between Ghani’s government and the Taliban are tentatively scheduled to start March 10 in either Norway or Qatar. The fact is, the Taliban leadership was ready for the deal last fall.
A big dilemma was getting the Afghan government in a position to enter talks with the Taliban. This has been made possible by the Trump administration’s investment in Afghanistan’s military and security sector.
Recently Afghan special forces – with a little coalition command and control assistance – rescued several Afghan military hostages from Taliban control. And the Afghan Air Force is now carrying out up to 50 percent of the airstrike missions, up from zero a few years ago.
From a military standpoint, the Afghans are in a much better place today. Over the last three years, Afghanistan’s forces have shown they can carry out better-coordinated, intensified military operations against the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
Afghan forces are not perfect by any means, but their improved military record has shown that the Taliban can’t conquer Kabul and take over as they did from 1996 to 2001.
As a result, the Afghan government has the stature and confidence to enter into negotiations with the Taliban. However, Afghanistan’s position of strength requires continued U.S. and NATO backing.
Don’t expect an immediate Afghanistan “peace dividend” for the U.S. In fact, the U.S. Defense Department budget request for Afghanistan operations has actually increased slightly.
This is a critical time, and Afghan military forces still need contractor logistic support even when U.S. military forces leave. Two prime examples are maintenance and training support for the Afghan Air Force A-29 attack aircraft and the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters. Both systems depend almost exclusively on American contractors.
Central Command reported a total of 24,202 contractors in Afghanistan as of December. Some 4,951 provide base security, while others drive, translate, cook, clean and maintain equipment.
If the Taliban behave and peace proves durable, it might be possible to close down smaller bases in due course.
The biggest security risk is that the Taliban could regroup for a spring offensive. Right now it’s unclear whether they are making plans to fight or stand-down this spring. Last year the Taliban announced the start of their spring offensive on April 12 and launched attacks in Nangarhar province hours later.
So far, the Taliban have made no announcement about an offensive this year. Much will depend on what they say and do in the coming weeks.
However, the Trump administration has at last crafted the right moment to make this deal and empower Afghanistan’s government to negotiate from a position of strength.
Of course, U.S. Special Representative for Afghan Peace Talks Zalmay Khalilzad will be on hand to coach, referee and drive momentum forward. But he’s not alone.
Norway started hosting informal talks between Afghan officials and Taliban representatives over five years ago, and German diplomats have also been very helpful in keeping the Taliban talks on track.
Afghanistan’s Vice President-elect Amrullah Saleh was once a Northern Alliance fighter with Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was killed by Al Qaeda on Sept. 9, 2001. Saleh himself was later hunted by the Taliban.
Yet on Friday Saleh said in an essay for Time Magazine: “I am ready to make peace with the Taliban on the battlefield, and fight them in a very different arena: at the ballot box.”
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