Pompeo Announces Taliban Peace Deal Plan

The pact pledging “intra-Afghan” talks is to be signed Feb. 29, but questions remain over whether the deal will last.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Afghanistan
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo makes an unannounced visit to Kabul on June 25, 2019. Jacquelyn Martin/AFP via Getty Images

The United States appears one step closer to extricating itself from a war in Afghanistan that has spanned nearly two decades and cost thousands of lives and an estimated $2 trillion.

Washington plans to sign a peace deal with the Taliban on Feb. 29 following the successful implementation of a countrywide reduction in violence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Friday. It comes after months of grueling negotiations with the Taliban, led by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and hosted in Qatar.

“U.S. negotiators in Doha have come to an understanding with the Taliban on a significant and nationwide reduction in violence across Afghanistan,” Pompeo said in a statement. “Upon a successful implementation of this understanding, signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement is expected to move forward.” 

What remains unclear is whether the peace negotiations to follow will make the current Afghan government a full partner, an issue that has long been a sticking point, as the Taliban refuse to formally recognize Kabul’s authority. Once the agreement is signed on Feb. 29, Pompeo said, “Intra-Afghan negotiations will start soon thereafter, and will build on this fundamental step to deliver a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire and the future political roadmap for Afghanistan.”  

Khalilzad, speaking at a United Nations conference in Pakistan this week, said he remained “cautiously optimistic” about the peace talks with the Taliban, but he warned that there were potential “spoilers” who would seek to derail a reduction in violence and peace. It wouldn’t be the first time. 

Eighteen years of war have been marked by sweeping promises from successive U.S. leaders of victory and withdrawal of U.S. forces, followed by stalemates, setbacks, and abject failure.

When the United States first went to war in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, then-President George W. Bush vowed to dismantle terrorist operations and roll back control of the Taliban. Now, over 18 years later, the Taliban have gained ground and control or contest much of the country, despite billions of dollars of investment from the United States and its NATO allies. Over 2,400 American soldiers, 1,000 soldiers from NATO and other allied countries, and 38,000 Afghan civilians have died in the conflict.

Opium production, a key source of revenue for the Taliban, has expanded rapidly in recent years despite over $10 billion invested in counternarcotics operations that the U.S. government watchdog overseeing Afghanistan reconstruction has labeled a “failure.” Under Taliban rule before 2001, opium production was almost completely eradicated. Now, about 80 percent of the world’s illicit opium originates in Afghanistan. 

Corruption is endemic in Afghanistan’s shaky democratic institutions, hobbling a nationwide economy where over 25 percent of Afghans are unemployed and many remain below the poverty line despite tens of billions of dollars of U.S. and international economic development support. “Afghanistan still needs to treat the cancer of corruption if its government is to sustain the donor support it needs to survive,” John Sopko, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, wrote in his quarterly report to Congress last month.

Afghanistan’s political divides add another layer of complication to the prospects for peace. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani narrowly won national elections in September 2019, according to long-delayed election results that were released this week. But his top political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, the chief executive in the unity government, contested the results and announced he was forming his own administration. 

The current peace deal is nearly the same as one brokered in September that President Donald Trump canceled after a U.S. soldier was killed. Since then, there has been no let up in fighting.

Now, the United States and the Taliban have agreed to a weeklong reduction in violence, though the United States will continue counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. If the reduction in violence—which both the United States and Taliban are careful not to label as a cease-fire—holds, both sides will sign a peace deal. The deal reportedly calls for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops over 18 months, and the Taliban’s pledge not to harbor terrorist groups targeting the West. The United States has about 12,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan, down from a peak of more than 100,000 in 2011. If the peace deal holds, talks between the Taliban and Afghan government will begin.

“This is a critical test of the Taliban’s willingness and ability to reduce violence, and contribute to peace in good faith,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement on Friday. “This could pave the way for negotiations among Afghans, sustainable peace, and ensuring the country is never again a safe haven for terrorists.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer