If the deal signed by Donald J. Trump’s administration and the Taliban takes effect, Americans will be happy to finally see the end of involvement in the country’s longest war. U.S. troop levels are due to fall from 14,000 to 8,600 within 135 days, and then to zero within nine and a half months (i.e., by May 2021). Also leaving will be other foreign troops and all private security contractors, trainers, and advisors.
But the withdrawal will not be risk-free. The abbreviated time frame for a troop pullout agreed to by the Trump administration provides few levers for influencing Taliban behavior—especially given that the United States also committed to lifting sanctions on the Taliban and releasing five thousand Taliban prisoners. Already the Taliban are claiming victory and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is objecting that the release of Taliban prisoners will deny him a critical bargaining chip in power-sharing talks that have not yet begun.
The Taliban’s Promises
U.S. officials say that the Taliban in return committed to a significant reduction of violence—something that is not mentioned in the text of the agreement that was released—but on Monday the Taliban announced a resumption of military operations. The Taliban did not renounce al-Qaeda, recognize the democratically elected government of Afghanistan, or commit to protect women’s rights. The group did agree to “start intra-Afghan negotiations with Afghan sides on March 10.” Note the careful wording, which omits any mention of the government. It also said it will take “steps to prevent any group or individual, including al-Qaida, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”
It is doubtful, however, that intra-Afghan negotiations will produce an agreement before the departure of U.S. forces. It will be hard for the United States to monitor whether the Taliban are complying with the terms once its military pulls out, because the U.S. intelligence community has depended on military bases for its footprint across the country. If al-Qaeda and other international terrorist groups such as self-proclaimed Islamic State are once again allowed to operate freely, the United States might be forced to send troops back under far less advantageous conditions, just as it did in Iraq in 2014.
U.S. Reputational Risk
The biggest risk from the agreement is not to U.S. security—Afghanistan is but one of many countries where terrorists can operate—but, rather, to American honor, if such a quaint concept has any salience in modern America. The United States toppled the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks and took the lead on installing a new democratic government aligned with the West. Now it is abandoning that government, just as it abandoned South Vietnam following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords with Hanoi in 1973. The United States promised to aid South Vietnam if North Vietnam violated the agreement but failed to do so; Saigon fell two years later.
Washington is once again running the risk that its allies could be routed and slaughtered. This reinforces the message of American retreat being sounded by a neo-isolationist president who recently abandoned the Syrian Kurds after they suffered heavy casualties to defeat the Islamic State. One of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s central messages to other countries is that Moscow is a far more dependable ally than Washington, and a precipitous scuttle out of Afghanistan will only heighten that perception.
Sustaining a Democratic Afghanistan
The most important action the United States can take now to prevent a democratic Afghanistan from falling is maintain a robust flow of money and weapons to Kabul. The Afghan government spends $11 billion annually but only collects $2.5 billion in revenue. It needs foreign aid to survive. In 2018, the United States provided $6 billion in assistance, which is a good target for the future. History is instructive: The Soviet-installed regime led by Mohammad Najibullah survived the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 but not the cutoff of aid following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.