Is the U.S. Seriously Taking the Taliban at Its Word?

U.S. Army Special Forces soldier stands guard with Afghan Military Force soldiers / Getty

Last Monday, a Taliban suicide bomber drove a captured American Humvee full of explosives into an Afghan military base in the central Wardak province. Taliban gunmen then stormed the base, where elite Afghan forces supported by the U.S. train. In the end, the Taliban killed more than 100 people. Yet the very next day, American officials met with Taliban representatives in Qatar for six straight days of talks to negotiate a peace deal to end the war in Afghanistan, now in its 17th year. Both sides agreed in principle to the framework of such a deal, the outline of which was publicized Monday. Many Americans will applaud this "progress" as one step closer to bringing the 14,000 American troops currently deployed in Afghanistan home. But the truth is that the framework is, in its current form, likely to fail, and it should raise questions and skepticism rather than optimism.

The proposal could lead the United States to withdraw all of its troops in return for a cease-fire and the Taliban agreeing to talks with the Afghan government. According to Reuters, which received a draft of the peace plan, foreign soldiers would leave Afghanistan within 18 months of the agreement being signed. An anonymous senior American official told the wire service that Washington is committed to withdrawing forces, adding, "Of course we don't seek a permanent military presence in Afghanistan." The Pentagon, however, has not received instructions to plan a withdrawal. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said Monday that, while the framework is "encouraging," it is too early for the military to take any concrete steps.

But there is more to the peace plan. The foundation supporting its weight is nothing more than a promise from the Taliban: that its hardened men, its Islamist fundamentalists would guarantee Afghan territory is never used by terrorists.

"The Taliban have committed, to our satisfaction, to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals," Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief negotiator for the United States, told the New York Times. "We felt enough confidence that we said we need to get this fleshed out, and details need to be worked out."

The peace plan is based on the United States taking the Taliban at its word—the same Taliban that, in October, attacked a meeting between Afghan officials and Gen. Austin Scott Miller, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Miller was one of the Taliban's targets, and while he was uninjured, three Americans in attendance were wounded, and three Afghans were killed.

There is no evidence that the Taliban will follow through, just blind trust and the empty promises of a group that brutalizes women, kills Americans, and attacks Afghan security forces. To the contrary, this is the same Taliban that enabled the Sept. 11 attacks by giving al Qaeda a safe haven in Afghanistan from which to operate; that triggered the American-led invasion on Oct. 7, 2001, after refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden; and that continues a close alliance with al Qaeda to this day.

The Taliban is a supremacist, totalitarian organization that seeks nothing less than total domination of Afghanistan as an Islamic state. There is a reason why the Taliban calls itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, not the Taliban. And the group has powerful followers. None other than Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda, has sworn allegiance to the Taliban's emir, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. Both men view Afghanistan as the cornerstone of their imagined caliphate. And, no, this caliphate would not be more benign than that of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. American policymakers and the American people seem to understand the need to combat ISIS, but for some reason view the goals of al Qaeda and the Taliban as less threatening. Trusting the Taliban and withdrawing American forces would be a recipe for another caliphate, except this one managed to kill nearly 3,000 Americans one September morning in 2001.

Where does the Afghan government fit into the framework? Kabul has been excluded from peace talks between the United States and the Taliban—no doubt a winning formula for paving Afghanistan's future path. Yes, the deal calls on the Taliban to begin talks with Kabul, but the Taliban has consistently rejected such dialogue. The Long War Journal notes that the Taliban has called the Afghan government "impotent" and a "puppet" subservient to the United States, and has called talks with it a "waste of time." The Taliban has not budged from this position. The group believes that its Islamic government is the only legitimate form of rule in Afghanistan, and that, as Mullah Omar, the Taliban's founder who died in 2013, said, "We have come out for the purpose of sacrificing in the path of Allah and establishing the law of the Allah on His servants."

Still, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Monday called on the Taliban to "begin serious talks" with his government and reach a "speedy peace," warning that a deal without Kabul's involvement could lead to "catastrophic" civil strife.

"Our commitment is to provide peace and to prevent any possible disaster," Ghani said. "There are values that are not disputable, such as national unity, national sovereignty, and territorial integrity."

Those values, noble as they are, may disappear in the debris of Taliban suicide attacks, like last Monday's, if this peace deal is finalized in its current form.