In Long-Suffering Afghanistan, This is a Peace Deal Worth Trying

KABUL — On Saturday, a holiday commemorating the 31st anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, people here awaited the announcement of an agreement between the United States and the Taliban on the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Skepticism here about what comes next pales in comparison with the certainty that continued war will fail.

This agreement can start a process that is the best chance to end Afghanistan’s 40-year war. It meets the core demands of the original antagonists of that war’s latest stage: the withdrawal of U.S. troops for the Taliban and guarantees against harboring terrorists for the United States. Next would come negotiations between the supporters of the Afghan Islamic republic and the Taliban on conditions to end their war, even as the battle against global terrorists continues.

The agreement provides a timetable for troop withdrawal, counterterrorism guarantees, a path to a cease-fire and a process for political settlement. Implementation would also require dismantling Taliban infrastructure in neighboring Pakistan and assurances by external powers that none will use Afghanistan against others.

The United States and supporters of Afghanistan’s Islamic republic fear that the Taliban may exploit a troop withdrawal to seek a military victory, while the Taliban fears that its concessions may demoralize its fighters and enable the United States to postpone troop withdrawal. The agreement overcomes mistrust by sequencing the components and stating that all are interdependent. As each measure is implemented, the parties will monitor compliance before taking the next step.

Upon announcement of the agreement, both sides will commit to a nationwide “reduction in violence” for seven days. The Taliban has made an impressive offer of significant and lasting reductions in violence nationwide that cover both Afghan and U.S.-coalition forces. The United States would reciprocate with a halt of offensive operations.

If both sides keep their word, they will sign the agreement in Doha, as the U.S. and Afghan governments jointly declare support for the process. The United States will reaffirm that it recognizes only that government as the country’s legitimate sovereign.

The Taliban will explicitly promise not to allow al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The Taliban will also commit itself to continue to fight the Islamic State. An annex establishes a center where the U.S. military and the Taliban will share counterterrorist information and monitor possible violations.

In the first 135 days after signing, the United States will reduce its troops in Afghanistan to 8,600, about the force level at the end of the Obama administration. Beyond that, the agreement conditions further withdrawals on the Taliban meeting its counterterrorist commitments. The Taliban will stop attacks against U.S. forces to facilitate the withdrawal. The United States reserves the right to help defend Afghan forces.

Within 10 days, the Taliban will open negotiations with the Afghan government and others who support the Islamic republic. The first agenda item is likely to be a comprehensive cease-fire. Government supporters with whom I have spoken here in Kabul expect the Taliban to ask for an interim government including all parties in return for the cease-fire. That interim government could preside over a transition that would include revisions of the existing constitution.

A settlement would also require demobilization or integration of armed Taliban into the security forces. That is hard enough in any armed conflict, but in Afghanistan, it has the added difficulty of requiring the demobilization of fighters and dismantling of military and terrorist infrastructure on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This requires the cooperation of Pakistan, and high-level military talks have started.

Some oppose the process, arguing that the Taliban would never implement such an agreement, that it is committed to reestablishing its Islamic Emirate and that Pakistan will never close down the Taliban safe haven. This agreement manages those risks by allowing the United States and Afghan government to test the Taliban and Pakistan without foreclosing alternatives. The United States reserves the right to modify the withdrawal timetable to assure that all sides comply.

The Taliban will demand at least the right to participate in the government and changes to align the current system more closely with its interpretation of Islamic law. That entails risks to gains in human rights, especially for women. The United States and its allies must stay engaged to assure that any such transition does not endanger the stability of the state and security forces and maintains the fundamental social gains of the past two decades. But according to Human Rights Watch, since 2016, children have accounted for nearly one-third of the (probably underestimated) 11,000 civilian casualties here every year. Which means the war to prevent another 9/11 inflicts another 9/11 on Afghan children every year it continues.

That toll fails the test of proportionality.

The United States does not need to station troops in Afghanistan to defend itself from terrorism. The attacks of 9/11 were planned in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Hamburg, not Afghanistan, where the leader who authorized the operation deceived his hosts about his actions. Today, such planning could take place in dozens of countries. As new powers rise, the United States needs not to expand its military footprint but establish networks of cooperation against common threats. The support for this process by China, Russia, Pakistan and Europe shows it is possible. Safeguarding gains from this process will require further diplomatic initiatives with these countries. It must also avoid confrontation with Iran, possibly the single biggest threat to this process. The administration may face choices between exiting Afghanistan responsibly and confronting the country’s neighbors. As it says in the Koran, “There are signs for those of understanding.”

This op-ed was previously published in the Washington Post