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Order from Chaos: Is the Afghanistan deal a good one?

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Members of a Taliban delegation, led by chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (C, front), leave after peace talks with Afghan senior politicians in Moscow, Russia May 30, 2019. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina - RC1C12362C10

Michael E. O’Hanlon

According to teases leaked by the American negotiating team, it appears that an interim Afghanistan peace deal may be in the works between Washington and the Taliban. Details are far from clear to date. But the main contours of any agreement seem to be a renouncing of extremists by the Taliban, the withdrawal of several thousand American and NATO troops, together with an indefinite ceasefire by all parties. If that is indeed the deal — it’s not yet clear if the ceasefire would happen early on, as it must for the idea to make any sense from a U.S. and Afghan government perspective — there may be promise to the concept, provided that not only the Taliban but the Pakistani government support it as well. These initial steps would be followed by negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government over some future type of power-sharing, after which the preponderance of the remaining U.S. and other foreign forces would leave the country as well. It is crucial that the remaining U.S. forces not withdraw until a power-sharing arrangement has been well-established.

I have been highly skeptical of this year’s peace talks, even though they have been led by the wily and wise Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad (an Afghan-born American who was President George W. Bush’s envoy to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the United Nations). The Taliban’s abject unwillingness to meet with representatives of the elected and constitutionally-legitimated government of President Ashraf Ghani, together with the belief of the Taliban leadership that America wants out and will use the peace talks as a fig leaf to cover a retreat from the country, provided grounds for extreme caution. President Trump’s announcement last December that he would soon cut the U.S. troop presence in the country in half, unconditionally and abruptly, was one of the two issues that apparently sparked the resignation of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis — and revealed the president’s apparent true intentions about a mission he never really supported in the first place.

The incipient deal does indeed contain potential pitfalls. Moving several thousand troops out of Afghanistan is a costly and difficult process that is hard (though not impossible) to reverse. By contrast, carrying out a ceasefire is something the Taliban can easily do for a few days, or weeks, or months, and then find some excuse to violate once the U.S. forces have drawn down. According to reports, the current number of GI’s might be cut from perhaps 14,000 to 8,000, more or less; the overall foreign troop presence including other NATO nations might decline from about 20,000 to 12,000 or so.

But this deal, insofar as it goes, would be OK. It would hardly merit a Nobel Prize in the first instance, and could in fact fall apart — we should recognize that possibility with eyes wide open. Yet it is still an acceptable risk, if the reports of its main parameters are in fact correct.

First of all, cutting the NATO troop presence by say 40 percent, while militarily disadvantageous in some ways, is not reckless. Doing so would return American and NATO force totals to roughly the level President Trump inherited from President Obama back in early 2017, or perhaps a bit less.


Marines preparing to launch a helicopter assault in Marja, a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan, on Feb. 11, 2010.

Mark Mazzetti@MarkMazzettiNYT

a RAF CH47 Chinook waits in Afghanistan

The Afghan war: The short and long story. Why is there a war in #Afghanistan? The short, medium and long story – America’s longest war explained in 100, 300 and 800 words


Thomas Ruttig@thruttig

« peace talks: Trump tweets, Taliban fights,» by Tanya Goudsouzian (Sept. 2019) : should have mentioned that the US do not only tweet in this war…  (Le Monde diplomatique – English edition, September 2019)  


The U.S. War in Afghanistan 1999 – 2019


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