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With the May 18 announcement of a new power-sharing deal between President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan and former Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, at least the Afghan government is no longer disintegrating right before our very eyes. Until recently, both men claimed victory in last fall’s highly flawed presidential election; each went so far as to hold his own inauguration ceremony back in early March.
Now Abdullah will concede, or at least accept defeat — a noble decision he made as well in 2014, under equally opaque electoral circumstances — but will take on the enormous responsibility of leading the Afghan government/civil society team in negotiations with the Taliban that have as their goal peace and a new power-sharing arrangement for the country.
Outcome of negotiations remains unclear
The Ghani-Abdullah accord is a huge relief, and should allow the United States to restore the $1 billion reduction in aid funding that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had held up after his late March trip to Kabul failed to resolve the political impasse. But of course, the situation in Afghanistan remains dire. Large attacks by the Islamic State and/or al-Qaida have deliberately killed women and children in recent weeks. The Taliban, for their part, deny any role in those attacks but have stepped up the use of lethal force against Afghan police and soldiers.
Actual numbers of losses in recent months have been classified by Kabul and Washington to avoid demoralizing security forces, but they might approach 1,000 security personnel killed in action per month. Taliban losses are likely no less. Yet, as The New York Times has reported, the organization has used a combination of religious zealotry, hatred of its own government , sanctuaries in Pakistan and the spoils of corruption to find ample recruits to replenish its ranks. Its strength now numbers 50,000 fighters or more, according to the Times.
Civilian casualties have gone up as well, due to everything from the spectacular bombings to being caught in the crossfire of the ongoing civil war, though they are not nearly as high as for the police, army and Taliban.
Prospects for a peace deal are presently poor. Both sides say they have the upper hand — hardly a prescription for compromise. President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah understandably consider themselves the rightful and constitutional leaders of the country and enter talks with the Taliban with that attitude.
The Taliban say the Ghani/Abdullah government is an illegitimate creation and puppet of the infidel international community, able to survive in power only as long as NATO forces back up its army and police. The Taliban further say U.S. forces, and therefore all NATO troops, are heading for the door — because the Feb. 29 peace accord signed by American envoy Zalmay Khalilzad with the Taliban says as much, promising a 40% reduction from earlier American troop levels by mid-July and a complete departure by spring of 2021. Without the United States there, no NATO ally will remain either.
If President Donald Trump wants to avoid being played for a sucker by the Taliban, it is time for him to clarify U.S. plans. In fact, the Feb. 29 deal is not quite so simple or determinative as many, including, it would appear, the Taliban leadership, have come to believe.
In fact, the accord requires lots from the Taliban, too. It also explicitly confirms that all of its provisions are interrelated. Thus, it is hardly a stretch for Washington to point out that if the Taliban fail to do their part, America’s obligations are no longer binding, either.
What the United States is asking for
Specifically, in addition to the United States committing to a troop drawdown and the Taliban promising to break ties with al-Qaida and ISIS — promises it might in fact already have broken, since one extremist group, the Haqqani network, is now part of both al-Qaida and the Taliban leadership — the accord also includes these provisions:
“After the announcement of guarantees for a complete withdrawal of foreign forces and timeline in the presence of international witnesses, and guarantees and the announcement in the presence of international witnesses that Afghan soil will not be used against the security of the United States and its allies, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban will start intra-Afghan negotiations with Afghan sides. … A permanent and comprehensive cease-fire will be an item on the agenda of the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations. The participants of intra-Afghan negotiations will discuss the date and modalities of a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire, including joint implementation mechanisms, which will be announced along with the completion and agreement over the future political road map of Afghanistan.”
The diction of these provisions is convoluted, perhaps intentionally so. They can be read to imply that if the Taliban team simply raises the subject of power sharing in discussions with the Abdullah-led delegation, it will have satisfied its obligations, regardless of the sincerity or seriousness of the ensuing talks. But that is ridiculous on its face. The United States should not allow such an interpretation of nebulous language to become the received wisdom of what the Feb. 29 deal actually requires.
Moreover, the last sentence above refers specifically to the completion of a future political road map for the country — not simply a passing gesture or comment in what becomes a stillborn negotiation. To be sure, neither the Taliban nor the Abdullah/Ghani team can be held accountable for the other’s behavior, and therefore neither side can be expected to deliver a deal on its own. However, because Ambassador Khalilzad will presumably still be in the room for the negotiating process between the Abdullah-led team and the Taliban, he can help adjudicate as to whether one or both sides is not acting in good faith in pursuit of these goals.
Next president needs Afghanistan plan: 5,000 troops for five years
If the Taliban do not negotiate in good faith, the United States and NATO are not bound to pull out all of their forces next year. Trump, rather than indulge his distaste for the war and his political desire to promise an end to it before facing voters in November, should make that clear.
For the talks to have any hope of success, Trump needs himself to say that he has made no commitment to cut and run — especially because the Taliban's willingness to assist al-Qaida elements in the future cannot yet be ruled out. Trump must therefore weigh his fatigue with this war against his longstanding promise to protect Americans from terrorism.
Future American policy will be influenced by the behavior, on the battlefield and at the negotiating table, of the Taliban. Otherwise the latter will conclude, as they have long believed, that while Americans have the watches, they have the time. And no meaningful power-sharing arrangements will be reached, because the Taliban will (perhaps wrongly, but still fervently) expect that they will have power fall into their laps when the Americans soon leave.
Michael O'Hanlon, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of "Beyond NATO: A New Security Architecture for Eastern Europe." Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelEOHanlon
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Afghanistan peace talks: How we save them