WASHINGTON – In making peace with the Taliban, the United States is moving to end its longest-ever war and also signaling a major shift: After two decades, an era of global U.S. military interventionism is winding down.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks killed 3,000 people and traumatized the American psyche, the debate in Washington has been over not whether but how to wage a worldwide “war on terror.”
The 2003 invasion of Iraq set off worldwide protests, but Afghanistan had been cast by Washington as “the good war,” with Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both reluctantly ramping up troop levels.
Under an agreement set to be signed Saturday in Qatar, Trump is expected to start pulling out troops in return for insurgent guarantees and leave the future of Afghanistan to negotiations between the Islamist militants and the internationally recognized government in Kabul.
But the position of the Afghan government, which has been excluded from the U.S.-Taliban talks, still remained unclear.
The deal, drafted over a tempestuous year marked by the abrupt cancellation of the effort by Trump in September, is expected to lay out a timetable for a U.S. force withdrawal.
“There’s been so much speculation about the contents of the deal. … We know the broad outlines, but it’s not even clear whether the full terms of the deal will be made public,” said Andrew Watkins, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group consultancy.
While Kabul would not be represented at the Doha signing, it was to send a six-person task force to the Qatari capital to make initial contact with the Taliban political office.
By providing neutral space for talks on ending the conflict, Qatar has boosted its international profile and helped it defy a painful regional embargo enforced by Saudi Arabia, which accuses it of being too close to Islamist movements.
The deal follows a weeklong partial truce that has mostly held across Afghanistan aimed at building confidence between the warring parties and showing the Taliban can control their forces.
While isolated attacks have continued in rural areas, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday that the truce period was “working.”
“We’re on the cusp of an enormous, enormous political opportunity,” he said.
The U.S., which currently has between 12,000 and 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, could draw that number down to 8,600 within months of the agreement being signed.
Further reductions would depend on the Taliban’s engagement with the government of President Ashraf Ghani, whom they have until now dismissed as a U.S. puppet.
Ghani was declared winner of last year’s elections, but his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, is refusing to recognize the win and has vowed to set up a rival government.
Any insurgent pledge to guarantee Afghanistan is never again used by jihadi groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State group to plot attacks abroad will be key to the deal’s viability.
The Taliban’s sheltering of al-Qaida was the main reason for the U.S. invasion following the 9/11 attacks. The conflict has cost the U.S. more than $1 trillion in military and rebuilding costs since the U.S.-led invasion of 2001.
More than 100,000 Afghan civilians have been killed or injured over the past decade, according to the United Nations.
All Democrats seeking to replace Trump have supported some form of withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Despite Trump’s campaign vows to finish “endless wars,” the United States still stations more than 200,000 troops overseas — and he has rushed 20,000 additional troops into the Middle East over the past year.
The Trump administration, while saying its broader goals are to counter China and Russia, has engaged in rising confrontation with Iran, in January killing the clerical state’s most prominent general in a drone strike as he visited Iraq.
A senior diplomat from a U.S. ally saw a change in Washington but said it was a mistake to believe Trump was fully retreating from military involvement. “Trump isn’t an isolationist, he’s a selectionist. He wants to pick and choose where the U.S. will be active,” the diplomat said. “That sounds fine until there is a vacuum and it gets filled by other, much more problematic powers like Russia.”
Russia has deployed in force into Syria, where both Obama and Trump resisted calls for greater intervention to try to stop President Bashar Assad’s brutal crushing of opposition.
Trump was criticized across the political spectrum last year for how he abruptly pulled U.S. forces from northern Syria, allowing Turkey to attack U.S.-allied Kurds, but he faced few calls at home for an extended military deployment.
Since Sept. 11, U.S.-led wars have led directly to the deaths of more than 800,000 people and cost the United States some $6.4 trillion when including the future costs of care for veterans, according to Brown University’s Costs of Wars Project.
Lawmakers have increasingly spoken of revising a vast war authorization — approved by Congress days after Sept. 11 with only one dissenting vote — that last year was used to justify U.S. deployments or military action in 15 countries.
Support for military action has waned sharply since the Iraq debacle. In a September 2019 poll, 43 percent of Americans said the Afghanistan War was a mistake from the start.
But the mood may be more weariness than anger. Unlike during the Vietnam War, for which Americans were drafted, there are few major protests demanding a withdrawal from Afghanistan, where 22 U.S. service members died last year.
Retired Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, said the United States can sustain support for long-term deployments if it keeps down “the cost in blood and treasure” — pointing to the seven-decade presence in Europe, South Korea and Japan.
The last two decades show that “ungoverned or even inadequately governed spaces in the Muslim world, particularly in the greater Middle East, will be exploited by Islamist extremists,” he told an unreceptive audience at the Quincy Institute.
“You cannot watch this problem until it goes away. Because Las Vegas rules do not apply in these places — what happens there doesn’t stay there.