Why this imperfect deal with the Taliban is still better than no deal

Why this imperfect deal with the Taliban is still better than no deal
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Just over a week ago, the Trump administration and the Afghan Taliban signed a landmark agreement. It sets a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops, obliges the Taliban to sever its ties with international terrorist groups, and commits the Taliban to a dialogue with the Afghan government to bring a political settlement and peace deal.

It marks a milestone agreement that aims to kickstart a long elusive peace process that ends an interminable war. Yet since the deal was finalized, it has sparked a flurry of criticism, with some suggesting the United States should not have signed off on it because it is too generous to the Taliban and could amount to a surrender to the group that provided sanctuary to the Al Qaeda organization that had staged the 9/11 attacks.

This criticism is understandable. It is a flawed agreement. However, make no mistake, as imperfect as the deal may be, it is better than no deal at all. That is because nearly 19 years of war in Afghanistan, led by the United States, is not just still raging but has now reached levels of intensity and deadliness never seen before in the country. Any chance to wind down this terrible war, no matter how problematic, is worth taking.

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The trend lines are troubling. The Taliban controls or contests more territory than at any time since 2001, and in the closing months of last year, it carried out a record number of attacks. Afghan civilian casualty figures have reached new heights, while opium production has reached unprecedented levels, and drugs are a prime source of Taliban funding. Meanwhile, the Islamic State in Afghanistan, despite getting hit hard by airstrikes for more than five years, remains resilient and active.

Perhaps most disturbingly are the increasing numbers of civilians killed by Afghan forces and their American allies. According to the United Nations, international forces led by Afghanistan and the United States caused more civilian casualties during the first half of last year than did the Taliban and other militants. These figures undercut claims of American stabilization in Afghanistan, and suggest that American forces are at risk of wearing out their welcome. This is a propaganda victory for the Taliban, which can use these figures to bolster its already robust recruitment prowess. In effect, the United States does not have the luxury of waiting around for a better deal. This focus on the ferocity of the war is not meant to paper over the flaws in the agreement that are meant to help bring about peace.

The Taliban got a lot without having to give much back in return. The deal calls for more than 3,000 American troops to withdraw unconditionally over the next few months, for 5,000 Taliban prisoners to be released this week, and for the United States to end sanctions on the Taliban in a few months. The deal asks the Taliban only to sever its ties with international terrorist groups. This is a light lift. One of the main global jihadist groups in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, is a shadow of its former self. The other group, the Islamic State, is a Taliban rival with few ties to the insurgents.

Meanwhile, the Afghan government, which at the insistence of the Taliban was excluded from the talks with the United States, has already balked at the prisoner release. The Taliban insists it will not begin talks with Kabul until its members are freed. The deal also calls on all American forces to leave within 14 months so long as the Taliban upholds its commitments. However, these promises do not include agreeing to a peace deal or even a ceasefire with the Afghan government. Thus, the deal disproportionately benefits the Taliban and boxes the Afghan government into a corner. The deal also raises the possibility of a full American troop withdrawal, while the war still ravages the country and the casualties continue.

It is easy to see why the deal is flawed. President Trump, determined to bring American troops home, needed any kind of deal to provide himself political cover for a pullout. His administration publicly voiced his desire to withdraw. The Taliban was happy to talk, knowing well it would enjoy leverage because of such haste to get a deal. Indeed, the negotiations unfolded almost entirely on the terms of the insurgents, as the Afghan government was excluded, talks of a ceasefire were deferred, and the prisoner release and sanctions relief demands were addressed.

The agreement could well fail to spark an dialogue within Afghanistan. A dysfunctional political class may prove incapable of representing the state in talks. The Taliban may conclude it has zero desire to negotiate a power sharing deal within a system it has rejected. But squandering the greatest opportunity yet, warts and all, to launch a peace process amid a terrible war is worse. It is better to try and fail to create a pathway to peace than not to try at all. If you fail in the end, at least you can say you tried.

Michael Kugelman is the deputy director of the Asia program and a senior associate for South Asia with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. You can find him on Twitter @MichaelKugelman.