Stakes in Afghanistan Demand Transparency
On Monday, President Trump declared talks with the Taliban “dead” following his tweets over the weekend. As Americans mark the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the suspension of talks with the Taliban offers a brief window of opportunity to step back, survey what has transpired, and plot a better path forward. Moving forward, the first principle for negotiations should be that America’s national security interests, as well as the deplorable track record of the Taliban, require the administration to fully disclose to the American people any future agreement with the Taliban before it is implemented.
To be fair, any administration deserves the right to negotiate an agreement in private. It is difficult to reach agreement if every stage of negotiations is subject to public scrutiny. However, once the agreement is reached, and before such a momentous policy is implemented, public disclosure is appropriate.
Unfortunately, initial indications suggested that the Trump administration was not inclined to release the agreement. According to one report, the administration did not even allow the Afghan president to keep the text of the agreement after it was shown to him. One hopes such reporting is not accurate. The courageous and long-suffering Afghan people have endured too much to be treated in such a manner regarding a decision so central to their own security. The American people also deserve better.
The U.S. has maintained thousands of troops in Afghanistan since 2001 when al Qaeda used sanctuaries the Taliban provided to plan and launch the 9/11 attacks. Currently, the U.S. retains approximately 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, alongside a few thousand troops from allied countries. U.S. forces are in Afghanistan to ensure that terrorists never again use the country to launch a 9/11-style attack on the United States. That means conducting counter-terrorism missions and building the capability of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF).
Despite this commitment of forces, sustainable progress has proven elusive due to Washington’s inconsistent strategy, insufficient resourcing of the war effort, and a refusal to aggressively and systematically address Pakistan’s provision of safe haven to terrorists. Last year, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, called the war in Afghanistan a “stalemate.”
While a plurality of Afghans live in areas controlled by the Afghan government, the Taliban controls nearly 17 percent of Afghanistan’s districts and contests another 48 percent. In areas under Taliban control, it collects taxes and imposes its harsh version of Islamic law. Taliban fighters routinely overrun Afghan military and police bases and headquarters, and even rout the respected Afghan Army Commandos on occasion. Deadly Taliban suicide attacks in Kabul and other major cities are an all too regular occurrence. Afghanistan’s major highways have been shut down by the Taliban.
Understandably, many in the U.S. are frustrated with this lack of progress after eighteen years of conflict and sacrifice. Americans are eager to see their troops return home. With the 2020 presidential election looming, President Donald Trump has made clear that he would like to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan – a position echoed by his likely challengers.
To that end, the Trump administration engaged in months of negotiations with the Taliban while sidelining the Afghan government, whose troops bear the brunt of the fighting. Under the deal that almost was, the U.S. planned to withdraw approximately 5,000 troops from Afghanistan and shut down five bases in return for a Taliban commitment to prevent Al Qaeda and others from using Taliban-held areas to launch attacks against the U.S. and its allies. The administration also expected the Taliban to subsequently engage in negotiations with the Afghan government.
The terms of the deal – including its timeline and means of enforcement – were uncertain, however, because neither Americans nor their elected representatives had access to the actual text of the agreement.
Releasing the text of the agreement may have provided some clarity regarding U.S. counter-terrorism concerns. Almost 3,000 people died on 9/11 because the U.S. paid insufficient attention to terrorists and their activities in Afghanistan. What assurances made the administration confident that the Taliban would prevent the country from being used as a training ground and launching pad for terrorist attacks against the U.S. and its allies?
Even if the Taliban decides to finally stop murdering Afghan civilians and attacking the security forces of the legitimate government of Afghanistan, what assurances did the text contain related to ISIS and al Qaeda? In February, the commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East warned that the local ISIS affiliate, ISIS-Khorasan, “will continue to grow as a threat to our homeland” if left unchecked. Did the text contain credible assurances that the Taliban has both the will and capability to eliminate ISIS safe havens in Afghanistan?
What about the Taliban’s future disposition toward al Qaeda? In 1998, the Taliban assured U.S. diplomats that Osama bin Laden was no threat to the United States. Plus, contrary to some assertions, the Taliban and al Qaeda retain a close relationship to this day. Did the text of the agreement provide any reason to believe this will change after U.S. troops withdraw? Will the Taliban deny al Qaeda any presence in Afghanistan or simply limit their activities?
Furthermore, why did the administration believe the Taliban would begin to negotiate in good faith with the Afghan government as American leverage waned with the departure of U.S. and allied forces? Even as the U.S. negotiated with Taliban leaders, they refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, calling it a U.S. “puppet” and “stooge,” and waging a ferocious campaign of terrorist attacks.
A sustainable U.S. military departure from Afghanistan depends on a credible and capable Afghan government that can prevent its territory from being used as a terrorist safe haven. If the Taliban won’t negotiate with the Afghan government, it suggests the Taliban is not interested in a genuine peace—only uncontested Taliban control. Any deal that fails to prevent such an outcome represents little more than a fig leaf for a calendar-based, politically-motivated retreat that Americans may come to regret.
Over the past month, the Taliban has launched assaults on three provincial capitals and detonated a suicide bomb at an international compound in Kabul, killing at least 16 people and wounding 119 more. It also launched a wave of suicide attacks, including one that killed an American soldier. Why did the administration believe the Taliban would undertake such a fundamental shift in its attitude and approach toward the Afghan government?
Did the text of the agreement address such concerns? Why wouldn’t the Taliban simply tell U.S. diplomats what they want to hear, while smiling and waving to the Americans on their way out the door?
Following the president’s unexpected intervention via Twitter, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo emphasized that "Any reduction in our forces will be based on actual conditions – not commitments, but actual conditions on the ground." Did the deal reflect that point of view? If not, that might help explain Pompeo’s reported reluctance to sign the accord. As the Secretary said Sunday, “We’re looking for more than words on paper. We’re looking for real delivered commitment.”
In addition to concerns related to the Taliban’s disposition toward the Afghan government and counter-terrorism, what assurances, if any, did the text include related to human rights? Did the Taliban make any commitments to forego the re-implementation of their extreme interpretation of Sharia law that previously featured, for example, the stoning of women in soccer stadiums?
The American people have sacrificed too much and have too many core national security interests at stake in Afghanistan to be kept in the dark. If the U.S. withdraws prematurely, it will invite a terrorist resurgence, destabilize the region, damage U.S. credibility, inspire terrorist propaganda, recruitment, and radicalization, and increase the chances of large-scale terrorist attacks against the U.S. and our allies in the future.
For these reasons, Americans and their representatives in Congress should not permit the administration to conceal any future agreement with the Taliban behind a bogus veil of unwarranted classification claims. The U.S. government certainly must protect intelligence sources and methods. Yet based on our experience on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, we know administrations of both parties often inappropriately classify information solely to conceal material that is politically sensitive or difficult to defend publicly.
Especially in the case of Afghanistan, that is not acceptable. The administration should fully release to the American public any future deal with the Taliban. If the administration can share this information with a terrorist organization that has directly or indirectly killed thousands of Americans and provided refuge to Osama bin Laden, then the administration should also provide that information to the American people.
If a deal with the Taliban supports American national security interests in Afghanistan, the administration should be able to defend it in the full light of public disclosure. If the administration is reluctant to fully disclose an agreement, it suggests it is a deal the U.S. should not have made in the first place.
Bradley Bowman is senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Bill Roggio is a senior fellow at FDD and editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.