EDITOR'S NOTE: Columnist George Will is on vacation. His next column will appear Thursday, Sept. 12
The best that can be said of the peace deal nearly completed between the U.S. and the Taliban is that it allows President Donald Trump to begin pulling American troops out of Afghanistan before the 2020 election. That's not nearly enough to merit approval — not just because the agreement proves the promise to be empty, but also because it is a foolish promise in the first place.
As U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad this week told the Afghan Tolo News, the proposed agreement would require the U.S. to withdraw forces from five bases in Afghanistan over the next 135 days. One senior U.S. official predicted to me last week that the headline for the deal would be, "America Agrees to Leave Afghanistan."
There's a catch, though: In practice, according to the official, the agreement will not really require America to leave Afghanistan. The withdrawal will be based on conditions spelled out in an annex — conditions that the Taliban is almost certainly not going to meet, such as ending attacks on civilians or severing its ties with al Qaeda. In reality, the senior official told me, "We will have the option to stop the withdrawal when we want." There could be as many as 9,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan throughout next year, according to the official, down from the current 14,000.
In a sense, then, this agreement to end a war is actually a diplomatic mechanism that gives the president the option to continue fighting it. And the U.S. did win some concessions for agreeing, in principle, to leave. The Taliban would agree not to directly attack U.S. forces during the withdrawal phase, for example, allowing the U.S. to withdraw from strategic positions without the risk of the Taliban overrunning the Afghan army that will stay behind.
Khalilzad also said the U.S. would not accept the Taliban position that Afghanistan should be ruled according to Islamic law. The peace agreement compels the Taliban to meet with representatives of the elected government in Kabul, he said, which it still does not recognize. The senior official told me that the Taliban has already agreed to a delegation for those talks and that Germany and Norway have agreed to mediate them.
So what's not to like? Remember also that the withdrawal would be conditions-based, giving Trump a chance to appear to be ending America's longest war without fully abandoning the elected government in Kabul or risking the return of Afghanistan into the safe haven for terrorists.
The main flaw of the deal — and it's a fatal one — is its counterparty. This agreement would elevate and legitimize the Taliban. It's important to remember exactly who America's prospective peace partner really is. Consider the position taken by from Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed after his group took credit for a suicide bombing this week against an international compound in Kabul that killed at least 16 and injured more than 100 Afghans. According to the AP, while Mujahed "acknowledged there should be less harm to civilians, he said they shouldn't live near such an important foreign compound."
This is not the attitude of a peacemaker. They are the views of a fanatic speaking on behalf of an organization committed to murder. The question for Trump is why he would bother to sign any agreement at all with a group that blames civilians for living too close to a compound targeted by its suicide bombers.
Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told me that as it stands, the deal gives "the Taliban a psychological and narrative advantage without making them give up anything." The Taliban agree only to "reduce violence," not to end it. They do not have to condemn al Qaeda, they just have to distance themselves from al Qaeda. The Taliban can still say they are the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and refuse to recognize its elected government, said Haqqani, who spoke based on what has been publicly reported about the draft. "So why should there be a deal with them?"
It's a very good question. If Trump wants to order a partial withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, he is free to do so without saddling the U.S. with a flawed agreement that, as members of his administration acknowledge, has enough caveats and loopholes to keep a small force inside the country. If Trump wants a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, he should have to face the consequences of that disastrous decision — without the fig leaf of a deal with the Taliban.