This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Three former U.S. envoys to Afghanistan warn that a draft U.S.-Taliban agreement on the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the country is a mistake that could unleash a “more dangerous” civil war.
“It is a very dangerous and damaging agreement,” Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012, said in an interview with RFE/RL on September 6.
Separately, James Cunningham, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2012 to 2014, and James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan from 2013 to 2014, told RFE/RL the draft deal did not create the conditions for peace and that foreign forces should remain in Afghanistan until an agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban is implemented.
Crocker, Cunningham, and Dobbins are among nine former U.S. ambassadors who penned a joint statement earlier this week in which they said that “a major troop withdrawal must be contingent on a final peace.”
The draft deal reached between U.S. and Taliban negotiators includes a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops within a reported 18 months. In return, the Taliban commit to severe ties with international terrorist groups and begin direct negotiations with Afghan officials over a permanent cease-fire and a power-sharing agreement.
The Western-backed government in Kabul, which has been sidelined from the peace talks, has said the agreement does not guarantee that the militant group will stick to their commitments once foreign troops leave the country.
Crocker, who was also the U.S. charge d’affairs in Afghanistan in 2002, said the deal amounted to a U.S. surrender, “reminiscent” of the dramatic pullout of U.S. forces from Vietnam in the early 1970s.
“To negotiate a deal without the presence of the Afghan government, something the Taliban has long insisted on, is a concession that effectively means for the Taliban that the United States is done in Afghanistan,” Crocker said.
U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has negotiated the draft agreement over the past nine months, has told an Afghan news TV channel that the United States will initially withdraw 5,400 troops from Afghanistan and close five bases within 135 days of signing the deal. Most of the remaining 17,000 foreign troops will leave over the next 18 months.
Cunningham, a non-resident senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council, told RFE/RL that the draft agreement was “more of an agreement that focused on the withdrawal of U.S. and international forces rather than creating the conditions for peace.”
“The worst-case scenario is that the American withdrawal will proceed too rapidly,” according to Cunningham. “The worst case is the collapse of the government and the return to civil war. That would be a tragedy.”
A devastating civil war in Afghanistan in the 1990s paved the way for the rise of the Taliban to power.
Dobbins said U.S. and international forces should remain in Afghanistan until a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban “is not only reached but implemented,” even if intra-Afghan negotiations drag on for several years.
“What is striking about the Afghan war is that it is neither popular or unpopular,” Dobbins said. “There’s obviously a degree of fatigue and a desire to seeing it ending, but it’s not a top-order issue with any element of the American public.”
‘New, Larger’ War
“Afghanistan is not costing us a huge amount — somewhere around 3 percent of our annual military budget,” Crocker said. “We are getting insurance at a fairly cheap price, insurance that we don’t have another 9/11.”
Crocker referred to the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 that were carried out by Al-Qaeda, whose leaders were harbored by the Taliban.
“Rather than winding down a war, we could be creating a new, larger, and much more dangerous [civil] war,” he added.
Under the draft deal, the Taliban has committed to preventing terrorist groups from operating in or carrying out activities from areas in Afghanistan under its control.
Observers have cast doubt on whether the Taliban would or even could deliver on its promises.
It is also unclear how the United States would monitor and verify the Taliban’s commitments if there was a complete military withdrawal.
“Whatever the Taliban say now, and they will say anything because they know that once we go we’re not coming back, is simply not worth the paper they’re written on,” Crocker said.
That means a U.S. counterterrorism force should remain in Afghanistan to serve as a bulwark against Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda militants.
The Taliban has said it will not accept anything other than a complete foreign-troop withdrawal.
Dobbins, who was also the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan from 2001 to 2002, said the United States could “conceivably” establish an exterior counterterrorism or monitoring force in neighboring Uzbekistan or Pakistan, both countries where U.S. military personnel have been stationed.
Put Negotiations ‘On Hold’
As a U.S.-Taliban agreement inches closer, violence has escalated across Afghanistan, including several deadly bombing attacks in Kabul and assaults on three different provincial capitals over the past days.
A permanent cease-fire was originally one of the four key U.S. demands during the talks. But the draft agreement does not explicitly include an agreement or date for a cease-fire to take place, but rather indicates that those details are to be discussed among the Afghans.
The lack of a cease-fire is a blow to Afghans, who are bearing the brunt of a war that killed or wounded 3,800 civilians during the first six months of 2019.
“One of the major faults with the approach we have taken is the ongoing violence perpetrated by the Taliban,” Crocker said, adding that “until there is a firm, clear, and verifiable cease-fire and end to the violence” the United States should put the negotiations with the Taliban “on hold.”