Officials temper expectations on Afghan peace deal

As US and Taliban negotiators continue to work toward a potential deal, US officials in recent days seem to be trying to assuage concerns about its impact — and have noted that an agreement may not be reached.

Their comments come as lawmakers and stakeholders have expressed concerns about the implications such a deal could have for regional stability, national security and the progress that has been made in Afghanistan.

The US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, arrived in Doha, Qatar, last week for the latest round of discussions aimed at reaching a deal with the insurgent group and bringing about an end to America’s longest-running war. Such a deal will contain agreements on troop withdrawal, counterterrorism assurances, intra-Afghan dialogue and a reduction in violence leading to a comprehensive ceasefire, Khalilzad has said. He has repeatedly noted that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

A State Department spokesperson said Friday that “Khalilzad and his team continue to make progress toward an agreement with the Taliban which will achieve the President’s goals and lead quickly to intra-Afghan negotiations.”

“If and when we are able to announce an agreement, the process will pivot to intra-Afghan negotiations, where the Taliban will sit with other Afghans and together they will commit to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire,” they said.

However, in the almost-year of discussions between the two sides, the Taliban have continued violent attacks against Afghan civilians and US service members have continued to lose their lives in the nearly 18-year-long war — one as recently as Friday. A State Department spokesperson told CNN this week that any potential deal would not be based on “blind trust,” but rather obligations and verification.

“The agreement we’re working on is not based on trust — it will be based on clear requirements and commitments, subject to our monitoring and verification and will be in sync with the understandings we reach (with) the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” they said.

“We’re well aware of the history of the Taliban, including the Haqqani network and its complicated history with al Qaeda, which is exactly why any deal, if one is reached, will be so stringently monitored and verified,” the spokesperson said in a statement Thursday.

“Everyone should clearly understand that this administration will do whatever is necessary to protect the American people. We have the will and the capacity to enforce the terms of any agreement and to respond to violations. We will never give up our ability to protect American interests. And this includes not only the outstanding armed forces fielded by the United States and our partners, but the full array of US and partner economic, diplomatic, and political pressure,” they continued.

The spokesperson said that “the Taliban understand that, should an agreement be reached, they will face severe consequences for any violation of their commitments.”

President Donald Trump, who had campaigned on pulling US forces out of the country, on Thursday said he intended to withdraw more than 5,000 troops from Afghanistan — leaving 8,600 on the ground — “and then we make a determination from there as to what happens.”

“You have to keep a presence,” he told Fox News Radio. There are approximately 14,000 service members in Afghanistan, alongside NATO troops.

A day earlier, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was “not using the ‘withdraw’ word right now.”

He also noted that “it’s our judgment that the Afghans need support to deal with the level of violence that is associated with the insurgency today.”

Republican lawmakers, including Trump ally Lindsey Graham, have warned the President against a hasty departure from the country.

“Any deal that calls for withdrawing our forces completely from Afghanistan is a bad deal for the United States,” the senator from South Carolina wrote in a Washington Post op-ed with former vice chief of staff of the US Army Jack Keane.

“History has taught that how we end a conflict is more important than how we start one. If we don’t end this war properly, we won’t be ending it at all. Instead, we will be creating a much worse situation for everyone except for groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State,” they wrote.

Top officials, including the President, have also given voice to the possibility that a deal may not happen.

“I don’t know that it’s going to happen. I mean, it’s getting close, but if it happens — who knows if it’s going to happen,” Trump said Thursday.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking in Indianapolis on Tuesday, said he doesn’t “know how these efforts towards peace and reconciliation will end.”

“For a year, and continuing today, we continue to work to get clear-eyed engagement with all Afghans,” he said. “We don’t know how these efforts towards peace and reconciliation will end, but President Trump has committed to make sure that we get it right.”

Pompeo continued: “His clear guidance to me and to my military colleagues is this: We want to get our folks home as fast and in as large numbers as we can, and we want to make sure that never again is terror struck on the United States from that soil. I believe we can and will accomplish both of these.”