Afghan Peace Plan on the rocks

 
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Afghan Peace Plan on the rocks

This is all kinds of not great:

The U.S. 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 U.S., Afghan and European officials.

The “agreement in principle” that U.S. 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 U.S. 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. 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 U.S. troops, roughly a third of the present force, from five bases within 135 days.

But the deal doesn’t ensure several crucial things, those familiar with the discussions tell TIME. It doesn’t guarantee the continued presence of U.S. counterterrorism forces to battle al Qaeda, the survival of the pro-U.S. 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.”

 

A Taliban suicide blast in the center of Kabul killed at least 10 people and wounded more than 40 on Thursday, destroying cars and shops in an area near the headquarters of Afghanistan’s NATO force and the U.S. embassy, officials said.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack even as the insurgents and U.S. officials have been negotiating a deal on a U.S. troop withdrawal in exchange for Taliban security guarantees.

“At least 10 civilians have been killed and 42 injured were taken to hospitals,” said Nasrat Rahimi, a spokesman for the interior ministry. 

And so understandably, the Afghan Gov't isn't sanguine about the prospects:

The Afghan government is pushing back against American diplomats on the eve of a troop withdrawal deal with the Taliban, concerned that the proposed agreement does not include enough assurances that the insurgents will abide by their promises after American troops leave entirely, Afghan officials say...

But senior officials involved in the discussions with the Americans said that the Afghan government is worried that, as worded, the troop withdrawal agreement in no way seems conditioned on progress in the coming Afghan negotiations with the Taliban.

“The concerns are very high, not just for the government but also for the people of Afghanistan,” Waheed Omer, Mr. Ghani’s director of public and strategic affairs, told the news media in Kabul on Thursday. “Because the people of Afghanistan have been bitten by this snake before — they have seen the results of hasty deals, of deals they and their voices weren’t part of.”

“We are still not assured of what consequences what is in the agreement could have for Afghanistan’s future,” he added. “Our position is that we need more debate on this agreement.”

It's a bit hard to stay optimistic about the deal, but SECDEF Esper is trying it at least:

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday he’s not ready to publicly discuss how a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan would begin under a peace deal with the Taliban.

"Negotiations in some ways are still ongoing," he told reporters traveling with him to Europe.

“The conflict continues on,” he said. “They are conducting attacks. The Afghans are conducting attacks. We’re supporting Afghan attacks. That’s why we think the best way forward — if we can get the right deal — is a political agreement that leads to a viable outcome.”

"I don't want to say anything that gets in front of that or upsets that process," he said.

Citing “sensitive negotiations,” Esper in the inflight interview declined to talk about specifics, such as the timing of an initial American troop pullout or, more broadly, his level of confidence that the Taliban would live up to their end of any peace agreement.

And so we plod ahead.  Obviously it's not looking great, but at the end of the day the Afghans will have to figure this out sooner or later.   Or....I guess a civil war will rage:

Nine former senior U.S. diplomats on Tuesday warned that Afghanistan could slide into an all-out civil war and once again become a sanctuary for terrorists if the Trump administration withdrew all U.S. forces without a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

The former ambassadors and envoys, who served in both Democratic and Republican administrations dating back to 2001, wrote in a commentary on the Atlantic Council think tank website that the administration needed to avoid a hasty exit to ensure the Islamic State and other extremists are not given more space to operate and to avoid undermining the Afghan people’s chance to live under a democratic government.

"A major troop withdrawal must be contingent on a final peace," the former diplomats wrote. "The initial U.S. drawdown should not go so far or so fast that the Taliban believe that they can achieve military victory."

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Comments

The story above is a sobering assessment of a complex situation. Several thoughts:
1- The suicide attacks could represent a division in the Taliban movement over who will be the final leaders of the movement. That is, the violent faction wishes to take control
2- A political solution is the best approach but absent trust, it's like building a house of cards. It's bound to collapse sooner than later.
3- The current Afghan government appears to have little reach outside of Kabul and will likely not survive regardless of what accord is reached. Its record of corruption invites cynicism and alienates support.
4- Afghanistan is not a nation state in the Western sense of the concept. It's an amalgamation of tribes who haven't yet agreed to the idea of a centralized state. Trying to predict a future for that type of "nation" is like herding cats.
5- Sadly, Afghanistan's history for the last 30 years has been death and destruction and while the US is involved, there is a military stalemate with the Taliban. Americans are openly questioning for what purpose there is a continued sacrifice of blood and treasure.
6- There is a sense that a post US involvement in Afghanistan will be like a post US involvement in Vietnam.
Sadly this is one of those real life situations where there may be no good options.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.