Has the US reached a peace agreement with the Taliban, or at least made enough progress to plan out a signing ceremony? A cryptic tweet from the Taliban’s spokesperson announced a meeting between top negotiators for both sides “regarding the signing of the agreement and the related ceremony.” That’s the latest hint, although not the first, that the war in Afghanistan may be heading to a conclusion:
Taliban and American negotiators are meeting in Qatar for what a Taliban spokesman called “fruitful discussions” that are expected to continue for “several days.”
The two sides “discussed the signing of the agreement and the ceremony for it,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen tweeted Friday.
It’s unclear what agreement Shaheen is referring to. Neither Shaheen nor the State Department responded to requests for comment.
The tweet follows days of what appear to be rapid developments in the standoff between the the US and the Taliban, with the Kabul government stuck in between. Just hours before Shaheen’s tweet, the Pakistani government announced that the Taliban would agree to a reduction in operations in order to restart the final negotiations for a peace deal:
American and Taliban negotiators appear to be making progress in Qatar, where the two sides are meeting to see about restarting peace negotiations, Pakistan’s foreign minister said Thursday.
Shah Mahmood Qureshi said “a good development” occurred Thursday and that the “Taliban have showed their readiness to accept the demand for reduction in violence.” Speaking in a video statement released by the Foreign Ministry, Qureshi added, “I believe that this is a step forward towards the peace agreement.”
Separately, the Associated Press reported that Taliban officials said the group gave the U.S. envoy in the talks “a document outlining their offer for a temporary cease-fire in Afghanistan that would last between seven and 10 days.”.
And just a few hours after Shaheen’s tweet, Reuters reported that the Taliban would implement a full cease-fire — and also open talks with the Kabul government, two long-time US demands for a peace agreement:
The Taliban will implement a 10-day ceasefire with U.S. troops, a reduction in violence with Afghan forces and discussions with Afghan government officials if it reaches an agreement with U.S. negotiators in talks in Doha, two sources have said.
If an agreement is reached, the move could revive hopes for a long-term solution to the conflict in Afghanistan.
Taliban and U.S. negotiation teams met on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss the signing of a peace deal, according to a spokesman for the Taliban office in Doha, Qatar.
In what now looks like a familiar pattern, the US had come close to an agreement with the Taliban in September. The Trump administration had pushed talks in Qatar in order to extricate the US from Afghanistan, a goal that Trump had made part of his 2016 campaign. However, the Taliban didn’t want to commit to negotiations with Kabul and refused to dial down its field operations, and when one of their attacks killed an American, Trump abruptly broke off negotiations and amped up US military operations against the Taliban.
So what has changed? It’s tempting to assume that the strike on Qassem Soleimani might have had an impact on the Taliban, but that seems a stretch. If the US had actionable intel on Taliban leadership, we would have used it before now, and certainly after the break in negotiations. This could be more likely attributed to the Taliban grasping that we’re not going to leave without any conditions, and that they’re better off agreeing to our short-term demands and playing a long game in Afghanistan instead. Once the US leaves, we won’t be back, at least not to save the Kabul government alone. As long as they leave the US alone, the Taliban can get back to the normal warlord business of Afghanistan once we depart.
Even that kind of peace deal would likely get Trump’s approval, mostly for the fact that we’re not going to get anything better, even if we stay another twenty years. It suited everyone’s purposes to ignore SIGAR Inspector General John Sopko’s scathing report on the “mendacity” of the US government across three administrations about the lack of honesty on our progress there, but his appearance in Congress on Wednesday reminded everyone that this is an open wound that isn’t going to heal:
“There’s an odor of mendacity throughout the Afghanistan issue . . . mendacity and hubris,” John F. Sopko said in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “The problem is there is a disincentive, really, to tell the truth. We have created an incentive to almost require people to lie.”
As an example, Sopko said U.S. officials have lied in the past about the number of Afghan children enrolled in schools — a key marker of progress touted by the Obama administration — even though they “knew the data was bad.” He also said U.S. officials falsely claimed major gains in Afghan life expectancy that were statistically impossible to achieve. …
Congress created the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, known as SIGAR, in 2008 to investigate contractual fraud and waste in the war zone. Since 2001, the United States has spent more than $132 billion to modernize the country — more than it spent, adjusted for inflation, to rebuild Europe after World War II.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee summoned Sopko to testify in response to a series of articles published last month in The Washington Post that revealed how senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the conflict had become unwinnable.
Trump would benefit in the short run by putting an end to America’s longest war. He might get accused of a reverse wag-the-dog for getting an exit within the context of a re-election campaign, but it’s early enough to where that’s not going to be much of an argument. The timing of such an agreement in the middle of an impeachment trial will raise more eyebrows, but the reporting thus far seems to indicate that the Taliban has initiated the latest progress and made the key concessions to get back to the table, not the US. It seems doubtful that the Taliban care much about impeachment, unless they’re afraid that a President Mike Pence might not be so keen on an exit ramp.
In the long run, this could play out in any number of ways. Barack Obama’s pullout from Iraq in 2011 to fulfill his election pledge turned into a disaster that produced ISIS and required the return of thousands of American troops. An American pullout from Afghanistan will almost certainly result in a return of the Taliban to power in Kabul at some point, either by force or by election. However, the strategic interest for the US is much less compelling in Afghanistan than it is in Iraq/Syria, and in the latter we can still help to shape outcomes. After nearly twenty years in Afghanistan, we’ve learned what the British did a century or more ago, and the Soviets just before us — that nation-building there is an exercise in futility.