Mar 03, 2020

What Trump’s ‘peace’ agreement with Taliban really means,

What Trump's 'peace' agreement with Taliban really means Peter Bergen Opinion by Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst "Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University and he has reported from Afghanistan for CNN for the past two and half decades. His new book is "Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles at CNN." (CNN)The Trump administration is close to signing a "peace" agreement with the Taliban, but let's not kid ourselves; this is really a withdrawal agreement in the middle of a hotly contested presidential election season. Such an agreement with the Taliban will allow Trump to point to a campaign promise kept: getting the United States out of its longest war. As a confidence-building measure, since last Saturday the Taliban have agreed to implement a "reduction in violence" in Afghanistan that will help pave the way for the signing of the formal US-Taliban deal slated for February 29. But there is a lot less to this reduction in violence than meets the eye, since the month of February in Afghanistan is typically a time of much-reduced fighting because of the brutal Afghan winter. The Taliban agreeing to reduce violence right now is akin to the residents of Chicago agreeing not to use their air conditioning this month. According to The Military Times, there have only been a "handful" of attacks across Afghanistan during the past several days, which means that the formal signing agreement between the US and the Taliban will very likely go ahead as planned on Saturday. The agreement stipulates that the US will draw down to 8,600 soldiers from the current 12,000 or so stationed in Afghanistan now. Towards the end of his second term, former President Barack Obama had seriously considered completely withdrawing all US troops from Afghanistan. After a discussion with his war cabinet about the risks that would entail, including the possibility of the Taliban taking over much of the country and hosting multiple jihadist terrorist groups, he changed his mind. As he left office, Obama authorized 8,400 troops remain in Afghanistan. This is pretty much exactly the same position that the Trump administration now finds itself in today, more than three years later. In the agreement scheduled to be signed Saturday, the Taliban for their part will have to guarantee that they will not host al-Qaeda or other jihadist groups on their territory. (The Taliban have actually been fighting the local affiliate of ISIS in Afghanistan.) Next month the Taliban will also likely enter into direct talks with representatives of the Afghan government, which hitherto has been excluded from the US-Taliban negotiations, an odd position for an elected government to be in since it is the Afghan government and people who will have to live with whatever the final shape of some kind of peace deal with the Taliban might be. If there are further reductions in violence the US-Taliban agreement entertains the notion that the US could withdraw all its forces, which has long been the key demand of the Taliban. The deputy leader of the Taliban writing in the New York Times last week said that this was the goal of the agreement. The likelihood of going to a zero US military presence in Afghanistan, however, is actually low because if there are no American soldiers in the country, forces from other NATO countries will also withdraw. That would mean that international funding for the heavily aid-dependent Afghan state would simply dry up, which, according to US officials I have spoken to, even some in the Taliban leadership recognize would not be a good thing. Also, there is agreement among Republicans and more moderate Democratic politicians about the need for some kind of persistent US counterterrorism and intelligence presence in Afghanistan to prevent recurrence of what happened on 9/11 when al-Qaeda hijackers trained in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan killed almost 3,000 Americans. Without getting into any details, President Trump said Tuesday at a news conference in New Delhi that there would be some kind of persistent US presence in Afghanistan. Trump said, "We'll always have intelligence; we'll have other things there." And what if Trump loses the presidential election -- what then for Afghanistan? The Democratic party is split on what to do. On the left, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren want to get out totally, while moderate Democratic contenders such as Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg both want to retain some kind of counterterrorism presence there. And that can only be achieved by leaving a number of US troops -- in the low thousands -- in Afghanistan. For the moment Trump seems to understand that the only thing worse than staying in Afghanistan is leaving it completely. But he is also consistently inconsistent when it comes to foreign policy, and he could just as easily pull the plug entirely. After all, it was Trump in September -- following an attack that killed a US serviceman in Afghanistan -- who abruptly ended talks with the Taliban that were supposed to culminate in some kind of signing ceremony at Camp David.