There are reports that the United States and the Taliban may soon conclude a peace agreement. Much remains uncertain, however. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is skeptical; his fate is uncertain given the Taliban’s hostility to his government. Doubts have been compounded by a bloody campaign waged by Taliban forces as the deal has taken shape; those attacks indicate that the U.S. presence may be all that remains between the Ghani government and the democratic ideals it supports, and a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
The U.S. drove the Taliban from power after it failed to hand over Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, who was hiding in Afghanistan. The group was weakened but never exterminated. It mounted an insurgency that slowly took control of parts of the country, a process that was aided by the corruption, fecklessness and inefficiency of the various governments in Kabul.
U.S. presidents have tried to reduce and eliminate Washington’s military presence in Afghanistan, but those efforts were stymied by the Kabul government’s failure to assert control over the entire country. According to some estimates, the Taliban control over half the country. Donald Trump ran for president on a pledge to pull out all American troops and that promise has assumed new urgency as Trump begins his re-election bid.
The U.S. has reached out to the Taliban at various times, but negotiations have been fitful. One key obstacle has been the Taliban’s refusal to engage the government in Kabul. The Islamic group considers it to be a U.S. puppet and is confident that the Ghani government will collapse without Washington’s support. U.S. negotiators have insisted that the Taliban conclude deals with all key parties in Afghanistan, not just the Trump administration; Ghani is among that group.
The Taliban’s readiness to honor that provision has assumed new significance following reports that the two parties have, after nine rounds of talks in 10 months, reached agreement “in principle,” according to chief U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. While details remain sketchy, the basic outline involves a U.S. withdrawal of 14,000 troops in exchange for a complete cease-fire. The U.S. would first pull 5,400 troops within 135 days of signing an agreement; full withdrawal would be completed within 16 months if the Taliban live up to their part of the deal. And, like all U.S. policy, final agreement depends on Trump’s approval, which is uncertain.
That uncertainty is magnified by the Taliban’s behavior. While the purported agreement seems to meet most of its demands, it has launched a violent offensive in recent weeks. A suicide attack in Kabul on Monday claimed 16 lives and wounded 119. The same compound, the home of many foreigners and international organizations, was attacked in January. Over the weekend, the group assaulted two provincial capitals as well as Kunduz, a large city that is a strategic transportation hub. Khalilzad and Afghan officials demanded a halt to the attacks and called them an affront to the peace process.
Several of the attacks occurred during visits by senior Afghan officials or when Khalilzad was briefing Afghan counterparts on progress in talks, leading to two alternative interpretations. It could mean that the Taliban is confident and is softening up opposition to any offensive it will launch when the U.S. withdraws. Alternatively, the attacks reveal opposition within the Taliban to any deal.
Either way, there is little reason to believe that a U.S. withdrawal will mark the end of violence in Afghanistan. If the eventual agreement includes provisions that allow U.S. assistance to Afghan forces in the event of a Taliban attack, and the violence continues, the deal will be little more than a scrap of paper.
Japan has been deeply involved in the Afghanistan struggle. Tokyo helped support the U.S.-led coalition 18 years ago in a controversial decision by the government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that broke ground on Japanese contributions to regional security. Tokyo has backed the peace process since it was launched in December 2001, hosting the International Conference on Reconstruction Assistance to Afghanistan in January 2002. Japan has since been providing aid to Afghanistan; in March, Tokyo announced new assistance of approximately $96 million, which has been used for, among other thing, refugee relief as well as mine removal and counternarcotics initiatives. In February, Japan contributed $13 million to help fight a drought, and a month later offered emergency relief goods in response to flood damage.
Tokyo’s involvement will intensify if news reports are correct and the Taliban expects Japan, and other Asian and European governments, to guarantee implementation of any peace agreement between the group and the United States. That could ensnare this country in a deeply unstable situation. Japan should be ready to assume that risk, but it must be aware of the dangers from the outset.