Last weekend, the United States and the Taliban signed a peace agreement that could end the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 18 years of war. Hopes are high that peace will follow, but caution, if not outright skepticism, is in order. The U.S., its allies and partners, including the Afghan people, are fatigued by the conflict, but using this agreement to abandon Afghanistan — regardless of the situation on the ground — would be a terrible mistake.
The U.S. and the Taliban have engaged in peace talks for over a decade. They almost reached a deal last September, but the Taliban’s killing of a U.S. soldier pushed U.S. President Donald Trump to end discussions. Chief U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad redoubled his efforts, and reciprocal prisoner releases helped build the confidence needed to get talks back on track.
A deal was reached a few weeks ago, but it was conditioned on a weeklong “reduction in violence” by the U.S., the Taliban and the Afghan government, during which all three pledged to halt all offensive operations. Against expectations, the ceasefire held and Khalilzad and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, political leader of the Taliban, signed the agreement last Saturday.
The deal calls for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan within 14 months. First, however, is a partial drawdown of the roughly 13,000 forces in the country to 8,600 within 135 days; U.S allies and partners will make proportional reductions in their own deployments. The U.S. also promised to work to remove members of the Taliban from sanctions lists and to develop economic cooperation and reconstruction with the Afghan government that emerges from the agreement.
For its part, the Taliban pledged that it will not fund, train or otherwise allow Afghanistan to be used by terrorists (al-Qaida or the Islamic State) to attack the U.S. or its allies, a group that includes the government in Kabul. It will also begin by March 10 talks with the current Afghan government to form an interim ruling coalition. The Taliban and the Afghan government are supposed to swap prisoners by the time those negotiations begin.
There are good reasons to be cautious about the success of the agreement. First, the Afghan government has not been part of the negotiations. The Taliban has refused to talk to any government in Kabul, and Afghan officials have complained that their interests have not been well represented in discussions between the U.S. and the Taliban. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani showed his potential to be a spoiler when he declared Sunday that he would not free Taliban prisoners before the power-sharing talks begin.
Ghani is also looking over his shoulder. He was re-elected to a second term after a bitter campaign and his victory has been contested. It is by no means clear that he will be able to put together a representative group to sit down with the Taliban for the March talks.
Second, there are doubts about the Taliban’s ability — or willingness — to maintain the ceasefire that made the signing possible. Parts of the country are controlled by neither the Kabul government nor the Taliban. Taliban spokesmen said the group’s obligation to reduce violence has “ended,” and conceded that the pledge that Afghan territory would not be used to attack the U.S. or its partners —Trump’s pre-eminent concern — only applied to land controlled by the Taliban.
Ultimately, the biggest issue is trust. Many believe that Taliban will sign any document that commits the U.S. to withdrawal and will disregard its terms once those forces are gone. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper insist that the deal is “conditions based” and a U.S. withdrawal will only occur if the Taliban honors its terms. Worryingly, there is no independent mechanism to monitor or verify compliance with the agreement. U.S. officials had said that any deal would allow U.S. Special Forces to remain in the country to conduct counterterrorism efforts, but there is no mention of such a residual force in the text released last weekend.
Given Trump’s 2016 campaign pledge, since renewed, to halt the “endless wars,” there is concern that the president welcomes any deal that allows him to declare victory and withdraw forces. Feeding that concern was his statement that called the agreement “a powerful path forward to end the war in Afghanistan and bring our troops home.” He added that “ultimately it will be up to the people of Afghanistan to work out their future,” a truism but also a hint that a breakdown in inter-Afghan talks will be seen as a lack of will on the Afghans’ part and validate his desire to withdraw regardless of what happens.
The U.S. and its partners have invested too much in Afghanistan to walk away without a stable and peaceful future for the country. The Taliban’s history of human rights abuses makes clear what will happen if it is free to impose its preferred social and political order. The group has also shown a readiness to say whatever is necessary to win its negotiating partners’ agreement, and then discard those promises when convenient. That cannot happen this time. As Esper said last weekend, the U.S. must be ready to nullify the agreement if it is not honored by all parties.
Peace in Afghanistan has implications for Japan. This country has provided diplomatic support — hosting in 2002 the International Conference on Reconstruction Assistance to Afghanistan and in 2012 the Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan to help build a post-conflict future — along with $6.7 billion since 2001 for various projects in the country. Maritime Self-Defense Force support for coalition forces fighting in Operation Enduring Freedom (the official name of the campaign against the Taliban government that started in 2001) was pivotal in changing Japan’s regional security profile. Like the U.S., Japan cannot be indifferent to outcomes in Afghanistan without looking unserious or like a diplomatic dilettante.
Equally important is the prospect of refocused U.S. efforts after the withdrawal. Esper has said that he wants to pull U.S. troops from Afghanistan — and elsewhere in the world — and “reallocate them (to the Asia-Pacific region) to compete with the Chinese, to reassure our allies, to conduct exercises and training.”
That is music to the ears of China hawks in the U.S. and this country, but it also means that tensions are likely to rise and Japan must prepare for the consequences. Beijing will amplify warnings that the U.S. is destabilizing the region and risking conflict. Japan will be blamed for encouraging or enabling that posture.
A renewed U.S. commitment to military competition with China will put greater pressure on Japan to do more to facilitate that effort. Host nation support talks will be even more contentious as the Trump administration doubles down on demands for Tokyo to contribute more to the alliance. Latest news indicates that pressure has already begun.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”