President Donald Trump met with his top national security advisers on Friday to review a US-Taliban peace plan that could end America’s longest running war – but could also trigger a surrender for the US and a betrayal of the Afghan government, critics say.
Trump met at his Bedminster golf resort with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and Zalmay Khalilzad, US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation.
“Discussions centered around our ongoing negotiations and eventual peace and reconciliation agreement with the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan,” according to Hogan Gidley, White House principal deputy press secretary. “The meeting went very well, and negotiations are proceeding.”
Trump tweeted that he had “just completed a very good meeting on Afghanistan” while on a working vacation at his golf club. “Many on the opposite side of this 19 year war, and us, are looking to make a deal - if possible!” he wrote.
The peace plan is expected to formalize a significant withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan – from about 15,000 troops to 8,000 or 9,000 troops – and enshrine official commitments by the Taliban to counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan, according to the multiple sources familiar with the plan.
While the deal will include other elements, including a US-Taliban ceasefire, it also has at least one crucial omission: It is not expected to secure a commitment by the Taliban to hold its fire on the Afghan people or the Afghan military, according to sources familiar with the talks.
The Taliban do not recognize the Afghan government, which has not been involved in the talks the US has been holding with the Taliban in Qatar. While some minutiae of Khalilzad’s agreement are still under discussion, sources say that the plan is 99% done.
The Taliban’s insistence on only committing to a ceasefire with the US was a serious obstacle during the negotiations, a source close to the talks told CNN. US bilateral security agreements with the Afghan government mean they are obliged to assist their Afghan partners on the battlefield, which could complicate this agreement.
Not including a Taliban-Afghan ceasefire in the deal could lead to a situation in which the conflict continues without the Americans playing a significant role, changing the balance of forces against Kabul’s government.
One source explained that the agreement is seen as paving the way for the US to leave the country without a high number of US casualties in the coming months. But another source said that in their opinion, the Taliban was hoping to use a deal to remove the US from the military equation, allowing them tackle the embattled Afghan army, imperiled without American support.
Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of FDD’s Long War Journal, said that if the plan turns out as expected, it amounts to a betrayal.
“I would argue the Trump administration sold the Afghan government out the minute they excluded the Afghan government from the talks and this US-Taliban ceasefire is just an extension of that,” Roggio said.
“The US is 100% betraying the Afghan people, the Afghan government, and the Afghan military in order to extricate itself from the country,” Roggio said, adding that “this peace deal is essentially a surrender for the US.”
Roggio continued, adding of the Taliban that “whatever counterterrorism guarantees they give are garbage, that is a big lie. … The one thing the Taliban can give is to say ‘you surrender to us and we will stop attacking you.’ “
The conflict has become America’s longest-ever war and has ground into a stalemate, with neither side able to defeat the other and casualties rising among civilians as well as combatants.
Taliban attacks have not slowed down in recent years or months, even as the US has continued talks with the group.
On August 7, the Taliban claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in which an explosive-laden vehicle targeted Afghan security forces in Kabul, killing 14 people and wounding 145, mostly women, children and civilians.
The Taliban has also claimed responsibility for many of the more than 1,500 civilians killed or wounded in the country in July, the highest monthly toll in over two years, according to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. In 2018, there were almost 4,000 civilian deaths in Afghanistan, according to a UN report, the highest recorded number in the 17-year war.
Those who defend the step by step approach that the US-Taliban peace plan is expected to trigger say the US will not completely pull its troops out before the Afghan government and the Taliban come to the table to establish their own ceasefire and enter into negotiations over a power-sharing government.
The plan will also have mechanisms for how to deal with violations, so that a single violation of the US-Taliban ceasefire won’t completely derail the forward momentum meant to lead a full US withdrawal.
But high-profile opposition is gathering. In the last week, members of Congress have reiterated their position that a US withdrawal from Afghanistan would be deadly.
On Friday, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, usually a staunch ally of the President’s, issued a warning. “I hope … President Trump and his team make sound and sustainable decisions about radical Islamist threats emanating from Afghanistan – the place where 9/11 originated,” Graham said in a statement.
Graham went on to address one of Trump’s frequent complaints about the US presence overseas, saying that US troops “are not acting as policemen in Afghanistan. They are the front-line defense for America against the reemergence of radical Islamist groups who wish to attack the American homeland.”
And Graham played to the President’s antipathy for his predecessor.
“To trust the Taliban to control al-Qaeda, ISIS-K, and other radical Islamist groups present in Afghanistan – as a replacement for a US counterterrorism force – would be a bigger mistake than Obama’s Iranian nuclear deal.
Another prominent Republican has also voiced concern.
“The United States must not put our security in the hands of the Taliban or accept a deal that enables future attacks by Al Qaeda and ISIS,” wrote Rep. Liz Cheney on Twitter earlier this week. “Any deal based on political timelines would mean retreating and ceding the battlefield to the enemy who killed 3000 Americans on 9/11.”
General David Petraeus, a retired general who commanded troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, echoed those sentiments in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, saying that a full US troop withdrawal would result in a “full-blown civil war and the re-establishment of a terrorist sanctuary” like the country had before 9/11.
Once Trump gives his stamp of approval, sources say Khalilizad will travel back to Doha to cement the peace plan with the Taliban.
Last month, Pompeo declared during a visit to Afghanistan that he and Ghani had agreed to “accelerate efforts” to end war in Afghanistan. Even in kickstarting that effort, the top US diplomat said that Trump remains committed to a “conditions-based drawdown.”
But Pompeo has also promised to follow through on Trump’s “directive” to have all US troops out by the 2020 US presidential election.
Afghan officials expect to see a draft of the US-Taliban peace plan before it is made public and have seen past drafts.
On Sunday, US-backed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, appeared to question the negotiations, saying his nation would decide its future, not outsiders.
“Our future cannot be decided outside, whether in the capital cities of our friends or neighbors. The fate of Afghanistan will be decided here in Afghanistan,” Ghani told a gathering for prayers marking the Eid al-Adha Muslim festival, according to Reuters.
After reviewing the agreements to date with Trump administration officials in Washington, both at the State Department and at the White House, Khalilzad is expected to travel to Doha to finalize the deal in the coming days. Sources say this could happen around August 19, Afghanistan’s independence day.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is considering sending another top US official, such as Pompeo or Bolton, to Afghanistan, while Khalilizad is in Doha to sign a declaration of peace.
That is under consideration because the “choreographing” will be important, as the US wants to be careful that it does not appear that they are selling out the Afghans in favor of the Taliban a source familiar with the process explained.
The State Department and the NSC did not reply to requests for comment.
CNN’s Barbara Starr in Washington and Jonny Hallam in Atlanta contributed to this report