Advocates say the United States–Taliban deal is the best chance to bring peace to Afghanistan. Critics say it signals America’s defeat to the Taliban and is an unacceptable risk to the American homeland.
In reality, the deal does little to change either the circumstances in Afghanistan or the trajectory of the possible outcomes. What it does do is give the White House a pretext for withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan, a move that has been resisted by the US military and large parts of the US national security establishment at virtually every juncture over the past 19 years.
The deal technically qualifies as one step down the path to a potential peace deal for the Afghan civil war. However, it does little to actually affect the probability that the process will be a successful one. Given what we know about all insurgencies since the 1960s, conflict in Afghanistan is unlikely to end any time soon.
Afghanistan is rugged and mountainous, ethnically heterogeneous, and poorly developed; foreign powers are intervening on both sides of the conflict. All of these factors are known to extend the duration of insurgencies, and the civil war has indeed been going on seemingly forever. The US-Taliban deal will not change this situation. Additionally, this deal is only between the United States and the Taliban. The Afghan government is not a party to the agreement.
The deal doesn’t mean the United States has lost in Afghanistan. Washington’s defeat occurred long ago. The deal simply acknowledges that it occurred. Some critics of a military withdrawal from Afghanistan have argued that the United States loses in Afghanistan only once it makes the decision to withdraw and not before. This is wrong. Washington lost when it chose to pursue political objectives in Afghanistan it wasn’t willing to pay the costs to achieve or that could not be achieved at any cost. The United States was never going to build a functioning liberal democracy with a Western-style military in Afghanistan, and it’s better to recognize that now than to sacrifice more American soldiers and inflict more suffering on the Afghan people.
That this is having little impact on the conflict seems to be lost on many, including those in the White House. It’s becoming clear that the Trump administration’s perceptions of Afghanistan and the state of the war are increasingly divorced from reality. Signing the deal was an impressive feat given all the factors inhibiting such an action. Significant credit is owed to Zalmay Khalilzad for getting it done. However, each additional step will be exponentially more difficult to implement, and the administration doesn’t seem to realize this.
Although they expressed caution initially, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper both sold the deal as a truce between US and Taliban forces until the conclusion of the intra-Afghan negotiations. The deal says nothing of the sort. The closest the deal gets to actually formulating something like a truce is a vague promise for the Taliban to prevent other terrorist groups from attacking the United States, and even this condition is nonspecific and has no enforcement mechanisms. The Taliban’s attacking the United States after signing the deal, therefore, would not be a violation of the deal.
Although Trump, in an election year, will likely try to sell this as a peace deal and an end to America’s longest war, this deal is unlikely to deliver either of those things. This will give hawks within and outside the administration an opportunity to try to derail the deal, much as they have done with every serious effort to end America’s wars in the greater Middle East.
However, the inability to deliver peace was always beyond the power of the United States and shouldn’t determine whether the war ends for Washington. While the critics of withdrawal have argued that this will escalate threats to the American homeland to an unacceptable level, this isn’t necessarily the case.
Terrorism safe havens are mostly a myth. Failed states and ungoverned territory do produce more terrorism within that space, but terrorists rarely travel beyond the immediate borders of these spaces and almost never travel beyond the immediate region.
Post-9/11 efforts to limit the transnational flow of resources and known terrorists have inhibited the ability of terrorists to strike out, and can continue to do so without a military presence in Afghanistan. Some are concerned that the withdrawal of military forces will inhibit counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan. However, the current strategy of seeking and destroying terrorist members is not particularly effective against groups as institutionalized and financially secure as either Al Qaeda or even the Taliban. These organizations easily replace lost members without significant disruptions to operations.
Critics of withdrawal are right that a withdrawal wouldn’t mean that US interests in Afghanistan or the region vanish; they don’t. However, they are wrong that military interventions are the best, or only, tool to pursue these interests. Diplomatic, policing, and intelligence cooperation with countries that border Afghanistan can help to contain terrorist groups and inhibit their ability to travel beyond the region. Additionally, the US military presence itself is one of the biggest inhibitors to peace in Afghanistan, as the widely unpopular Taliban rely on the fight against a foreign occupation as their primary source of legitimacy. The deal may not change much on the ground, but if peace is what we want, an indefinite US military presence won’t get us there.