Even though the Trump administration has yet to settle precisely on the speed, timing or terms of withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is no doubt that this is the ultimate objective. The administration is negotiating the details with the Afghan Taliban, the group that controlled the country and harbored al-Qaida before its attacks on the U.S. in 2001. The talks may have been dealt a setback, or at least put on pause, by President Trump’s cancellation of a heretofore secret meeting between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives set for tomorrow at Camp David. It is nonetheless time to ask what a U.S. withdrawal means, why it matters and whether we can have any confidence in Taliban pledges.
Since 9/11, U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan have fluctuated between a high of 100,000 in 2011 and about 14,000 today. Until 2014, they were part of a NATO mission that at its height had 130,000 troops from 50 countries; NATO transitioned it from a combat mission to a “train, equip and advise” mandate in 2014, aiming to shift responsibility to Afghan security forces. The U.S. contingent is now the major part of a force of 17,000 from 30 countries. Close to 3,500 coalition personnel have been killed since 2001, including 2,300 Americans.
No one would argue that this 18-year-long Western commitment has solved Afghanistan’s security problems, but some changes in Afghan life offer modest hope for the future. Despite endemic corruption, Afghans continue to stumble fitfully toward a functioning electoral system, with a presidential election set for Sept. 28. Perhaps most important, in a country of 36 million people, USAID says about 9 million children are now in school, one-third of them girls. Under the Taliban, few children had access to school, and no girls were permitted to attend. We will have to live with whatever is agreed and whatever comes next.
After nine rounds of negotiations in Qatar with Taliban representatives, U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad this week unveiled some details of an agreement “in principle,” saying President Trump will have the final say. The U.S. would commit to withdrawing 5,400 troops from five bases within 135 days (leaving about 8,600 U.S. troops). In return, the Taliban say they will not allow the country to be used as a terrorist base for attacks on the U.S. and would enter talks with the Afghan government on a power-sharing arrangement. In addition to Trump’s approval, the deal is contingent upon these follow-up talks and a cease-fire; Afghan president Ashraf Ghani has not yet been involved in the talks, partly at Taliban insistence, and almost certainly remains leery.
Can this work? It’s a risky proposition for sure.
For starters, the Taliban hold sway or contest about 46 percent of Afghan territory and 36 percent of its population, according to the congressionally mandated inspector general for Afghan reconstruction. And it has continued to mount deadly attacks on Afghan civilians and forces during the negotiations. Given these “facts on the ground,” maintaining any agreement will depend on yet-to-be-established trust and the ability of the U.S. and Afghans to monitor and enforce Taliban compliance. This will likely require the U.S. to continue a substantial intelligence commitment and — if the U.S. wants to respond to any Taliban violations — also dedicate a sizable portion of its remaining troop commitment to special operations. Come what may, it is virtually certain that no U.S. administration will resume a major troop buildup in Afghanistan.
So, the truth we must absorb is a common one in ending wars: We will have to live with whatever is agreed and whatever comes next. Maximum care is required at this stage.
Once you get past these hard facts, we are thrown back into conjecture. Has the Taliban changed in some fundamental way since 2001? Some field researchers see a few positive signs, such as a Taliban turning away from harsh rule in favor of a budding interest in actually governing areas they control, providing public services such as health care and education. This shift reportedly came with the new leader Akhtar Mansour; he succeeded the late Mullah Omar in 2013. This could be a sign that they are ready for legitimate politics, but it is not clear whether this is an established trend or just experimentation.
Equally hard to gauge is whether the ongoing Taliban violence is a tactic to bolster their negotiating position or a signal of divergence between hard-bitten field operatives and the more reassuring, coat-and-tie Taliban reps bargaining in Qatar. Is the organization under disciplined control? Probably not entirely.
Perhaps the key question is whether the Taliban has abandoned its denial of women’s rights. Taliban reps at a forum in Moscow early this year claimed that the organization now supports female access to education, jobs, property rights and the right to choose a husband. We cannot know whether this is lip service or genuine change, but there are reports that women have trouble getting jobs in Taliban-controlled areas. Probably the most we can expect right now is a spectrum of views on this within the Taliban rather than wholesale conversion. Meanwhile, the Taliban will face a new reality: an Afghan female population that, at least in major cities, has grown accustomed to opportunity; about one-third of the Afghan parliament is now women. They are not likely to yield easily to Taliban harassment.
The Taliban says it would not again harbor terrorist groups, but this really sidesteps the issue of terrorism. So much of Afghanistan is wide open or only loosely governed that extremists will always be able to find some haven. The question is whether the Taliban as a government party would support efforts to root terrorists out and establish broader security.
Underlying that and all the other questions is whether the Taliban could actually share power. They would have to agree that sharia law can coexist with democracy, something such extremist groups normally find abhorrent. And concepts like “loyal opposition” are likely to just be puzzling to a group with such absolutist views.
In the end, there can be no firm guarantee that any agreement the U.S. negotiates will preserve the gains the West has made with 18 years of commitment. The best case is that the aftermath will be messy but short of disastrous; the worst case is that the Taliban will push others aside and assert unilateral rule. Given the changes since 9/11, there is a modest chance that messiness might win out over disaster — with the emphasis on modest.
Given that the eventual U.S. drawdown now seems in the cards, the minimum aim is not to make major mistakes, as we did in the most analogous case: our chaotic departure from Vietnam. Thankfully, we seem to be on a path to an orderly drawdown, not the humiliating rooftop chopper escape American officials had to make from 1975 Saigon. Now we must avoid the other Vietnam errors we made: failure to adequately coordinate with our local partners — the Ghani government in this case — and failure to protect from retribution those who had worked most closely with us.
Honor demands no less.
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