DOHA, Qatar—The American negotiator trying to cut a deal with the Taliban that might let Donald Trump get all uniformed troops out of Afghanistan before next year’s election says that the two sides have an “agreement in principle.”
But Taliban officials and diplomats here in the capital of Qatar, where the talks have been held, told The Daily Beast that after Round 9 last week, there was still no deal the Taliban would sign.
Trump’s man in the talks, Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, appears to be bluffing, and has tried to make it sound as if it’s all up to his boss: “Of course, it is not final until the U.S. president agrees on it. So, at the moment, we are at that stage.”
“I think throughout this process we’ve seen the U.S. and Zalmay get a little over his skis when it comes to things like negotiation details or a timeline for withdrawal or in this case announcing the deal being agreed upon in principle,” said one former U.S. official familiar with the details of the ongoing talks in Doha. “It isn’t over and done until Trump says it is and as we know the president’s thoughts on big deals like this often change at the last minute."
Meanwhile, inside the White House, senior Trump officials are discussing last minute details of the Khalilzad-negotiated deal, according to two officials with knowledge of those conversation. Those discussions have focused in part on how to continue to support the Afghan security forces throughout the withdrawal process, those sources said.
But the longer the talks go on, the clearer it is that the Taliban have the final say. They know Trump is desperate to leave, and they are determined not only to remain a power in their country, but to re-establish what they call the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
“The Taliban have been rather rude with the U.S. throughout the peace process because they have the impression that a withdrawal deal is a desperate desire of the USA, not the Taliban,” says a senior European diplomat in Kabul. “Imagine how rudely and offensively the Taliban will treat the already upset and isolated President [Ashraf] Ghani.”
Presumably there will be some agreement in the not too distant future as the Taliban give Trump enough concessions to save face, but they know what they call the “evacuation” of all American forces, whether in uniform or as covert or contract operatives, will demoralize the U.S.-backed regime in Kabul and especially the Afghan military and security forces. These local soldiers and police, after 17 years and tens of thousands of casualties in their ranks, still remain largely dependent on American support, especially from the air.
There are many precedents indicating what to expect when such dependent troops see their patrons abandoning them. Typically, large numbers lose the will to fight and they flee, surrender, or change sides.
Such was the case after peace talks with Hanoi allowed Richard Nixon political cover to withdraw all American combat troops by the end of 1973 only to see Saigon fall to North Vietnam in the spring of 1975, less than two years later.
When the Israelis were ending their occupation of South Lebanon in 2000 they quickly discovered that the militias they created and armed there were selling them out and forging covert alliances with their enemy.
Already, Taliban sources tell The Daily Beast they are looking at what Afghan military units—perhaps entire bases—are most likely to come over to their side as the Americans withdraw.
At present the U.S. has only 14,000 uniformed troops left in the country. It invaded in 2001 following the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington by al-Qaeda, which operated out of Afghanistan with Taliban protection. By 2010 under President Barack Obama there were 100,000 U.S. troops on the ground as well as contingents from NATO allies. But Obama had brought the American presence down to 8,400 by the time he left office—slightly fewer than the number of troops Trump mentioned in his latest public peroration on the subject.
“We’re going down to 8,600 and then we make a determination from there as to what happens,” Trump told Fox News Radio last week. Obviously aware how unsatisfying such arrangements are for supporters who want a definitive end to America’s longest war, Trump also repeated his thought that the U.S. could win that war “so fast, if I wanted to kill 10 million people ... which I don’t.”
Such hollow threats only play into the hands of Taliban propagandists who already benefit from what they portray as U.S. disregard for civilian casualties and U.S. Special Envoy Khalilzad’s overstated optimism in an interview published Monday by Afghanistan’s TOLONews agency could be read as a reaction to Trump’s overstated rhetoric of fire and fury.
In the meantime, in what is also a familiar pattern during peace negotiations, the Taliban have stepped up the pace of the war in the field to strengthen their hand at the table.
Various versions of the supposed “agreement in principle” have appeared in the press, whether as leaks or as informed speculation masquerading as draft documents.
Over the Labor Day weekend in the United States, Khalilzad presented the results of Round 9 to the U.S.-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who have been left out of the talks but are supposed to have a chance to negotiate directly with the Taliban as the U.S. withdraws.
One supposed draft, which appeared originally on an Afghan television news site, has circulated in Washington and does reflect some of the agreed upon points in the negotiations, according to our sources.
From the beginning of the U.S.-Taliban talks 10 months ago the focus has been on four issues: the withdrawal of U.S. forces; assurances that no terrorists targeting the United States (al-Qaeda, ISIS, or others not yet named) will be allowed to operate out of Afghanistan; a ceasefire; and negotiations with the government in Kabul.
The assurance that Afghanistan will no longer harbor terrorists aiming to attack the United States is a relatively easy one for the Taliban to make. They were dragged into the war that deposed them by a misplaced loyalty to their relationship with Osama bin Laden. As for the so-called Islamic State, it is a direct threat to their own power.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops is supposed to begin within 135 days of a signed agreement and last no longer than 14 months. The Taliban also agree they will not attack U.S. troops “during the evacuation” and “neither will the U.S. have any military collaboration with the Afghan government.”
Taliban representatives in Doha told The Daily Beast that any U.S. effort to replace a uniformed presence with contingents of CIA operatives or contractors will be unacceptable, but they might be willing to accept extensive intelligence monitoring from neighboring countries, presumably including Uzbekistan, which already has a major U.S. presence. They also warned against an outsized military or security presence to protect the U.S. embassy and diplomatic outposts.
For its part, the U.S. has made its withdrawal contingent on progress in negotiations between the Taliban and the central government, and several lines have been included in various drafts assuring respect for human rights, women’s rights, and free speech, but always with the caveat “based on the principles of Islam” which the Taliban interpret in their own particular way.
Sami Yousafzai reported from Doha, Erin Banco from Washington, and Christopher Dickey from New York.