WASHINGTON -UNS : The US is closing in on a deal with the Taliban that is designed to wind down America’s 18-year war in Afghanistan, but the best indication of how risky the pact may be is this: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is declining to sign it, according to senior US, Afghan and European officials.
The “agreement in principle” that US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has hammered out in nine rounds of talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar would take the first tentative steps toward peace since the US and allied forces deployed to Afghanistan following the attacks on 9/11, according to senior Afghan and Trump Administration officials familiar with its general terms.
Also read: US, Taliban on threshold of peace deal
Defense Secretary Mark Esper was scheduled to discuss the closely held details of the deal with President Donald Trump in a Sept 3 meeting, according to senior administration officials. If Trump approves and a deal is struck, it could begin a withdrawal of some 5,400 US troops, roughly a third of the present force, from five bases within 135 days, international media reported.
But the deal doesn’t ensureseveral crucial things, those familiar with the discussions tell TIME. It doesn’t guarantee the continued presence of US counterterrorism forces to battle al Qaeda, the survival of the pro-US government in Kabul, or even an end to the fighting in Afghanistan. “No one speaks with certainty. None,” said an Afghan official taking part in briefings on the deal with Khalilzad. “It is all based on hope. There is no trust. There is no history of trust. There is no evidence of honesty and sincerity from the Taliban,” and intercepted communications “show that they think they have fooled the U.S. while the U.S. believes that should the Taliban cheat, they will pay a hefty price.”
That may explain why Pompeo declined to put his name on the deal. The Taliban asked for Pompeo to sign an agreement with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the official name of the government founded by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1996, four US, Afghan and European officials familiar with the discussions tell TIME. Having the Secretary of State sign such a document would amount to de facto recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political entity, and he declined to do so, the Afghan officials say.
Pompeo’s office declined to comment before publication of this story. After it was published, Pompeo said through a spokesperson that he might sign if Trump and all parties struck a deal. “There is no agreement to sign yet. If and when there is an agreement that is approved by all parties, including President Trump and if the Secretary is the appropriate signatory, he will sign it,” State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus emailed TIME Wednesday evening.
There are two alternatives. Khalilzad himself may sign it. Or the US and the Taliban may simply issue a joint statement, supported in turn by the US-backed government in Kabul and a number of other countries, including Japan, Russia and China, two Afghan sources familiar with the deliberations tell TIME.
That diplomatic sleight of hand might solve the signature problem. As it stands, the agreement would set the stage for the withdrawal of most American forces by the end of November 2020 if the Taliban do three things: open negotiations with the US-backed Afghan government; reduce violence near areas US forces control; and keep foreign militants out of the areas they control, according to current and former US, Afghan and European officials, who all spoke anonymously to describe the sensitive and fractious deliberations.
US military and intelligence officers and diplomats who have served in Afghanistan worry that once a withdrawal is underway, it will be irreversible, given Trump’s promise to end the US involvement in the war there, the fast-approaching 2020 US elections and the absence of public support for the war.
The price of peace, they fear, might include reversing much of the hard-won progress towards building a stable country over nearly two decades of war. These officials fear a roll back of civil, human and women’s rights in Afghanistan; a weakening of the national, regional and local governments.
It is “not clear whether peace is possible,” nine former high-ranking US officials, including a former deputy secretary of state, warned in a Sept. 3 letter distributed by the Atlantic Council. “Secondly, there is an outcome far worse than the status quo, namely a return to the total civil war that consumed Afghanistan.”
The agreement does not require the Taliban to stop attacking Afghan forces, officials say. The talks between the Taliban and the US-backed Afghan government are expected to begin in Oslo shortly after a US-Taliban agreement is finalised, officials say.
For their part, the Taliban have assured their fighters that the US will withdraw all foreign troops within a little more than a year. In their communications with their rank and file, Taliban officials also go light on mentioning any “conditions” that would give the Americans the right to freeze or reverse the troop withdrawal, Afghan officials familiar with the Taliban communications tell TIME.
Taliban commanders have radioed their followers to “prepare for victory” by welcoming Afghans who sided with the Americans rather than engaging in bloody revenge, a senior Afghan official said. Senior Taliban officials have bragged to other foreign officials that all you have to do to defeat the Americans is refuse to surrender, and ultimately, the Americans will give up, a former senior US official told TIME.
“The Taliban’s goals for Afghanistan have not changed,” said Bill Roggio, of the Washington DC-based Foundation for Defence of Democracies. “It seeks to eject the US, reestablish its Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and impose its Islamic government.”
Still, the agreement may be the best deal the US and its allies can get to head off a pre-emptive pullout of US troops in time for the 2020 US elections. Military officials have long known they need to reduce the number of troops to a smaller, cheaper footprint to mollify US policymakers tired of writing checks after 18 years of war, and a US public that doesn’t understand why the troops are still there.
For Afghan officials, or at least the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, it’s a final insult and a dark turning point in relations with Washington. Publicly, Ghani has tentatively, though not officially, embraced the deal. But privately aides tell TIME that they have heard shouting matches between Ghani and Khalilzad in Kabul over the last two days, with Khalilzad telling Ghani that he’s got to accept this deal because Afghanistan is losing the war.
The disagreements range from the petty to the existential: Afghan-born Khalilzad won’t give a draft of the Taliban agreement to Ghani, the elected Afghan president, and a university classmate of Khalilzad’s, the aides say. Ghani won’t yield on holding Afghan presidential elections that are likely to hand him another five-year term, complicating the nascent Oslo talks with the Taliban.
Each man has given some quarter, with Khalilzad publicly conceding that it’s likely too late to cancel the Sept 28 election, and Ghani agreeing to send a delegation to Oslo to start talks with the Taliban in the last week of September, just before the voting.
The 15-person delegation includes three women, but the names won’t be announced until just before the talks begin, Afghan officials said. Everyday Afghans, for their part, don’t know whom, if anyone, to trust. But they know Trump wants out.
Says the Afghan official who participated in the briefings with Khalilzad: “If the US decides to leave, we can’t stop them.” Who in Washington will take responsibility for the decision is another matter.