Trump in danger of giving the Taliban exactly what they want

Trump in danger of giving the Taliban exactly what they want
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There is at least one thing, apparently, on which President Donald Trump and the Democratic presidential candidates agree: We must withdraw troops from Afghanistan, no matter the cost. 

During the Democrats' debate last week, each candidate who discussed Afghanistan pledged to withdraw troops, but none outlined a reasonable plan for doing so, seemingly suggesting that withdrawal, regardless of terms, is a good thing. 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades MORE, who also is committed to pulling out troops, was exploring a bold peace plan with the Taliban. But when negotiations were frustrated on the eve of a deal — because Taliban fighters brazenly killed another American soldier — Trump acted, wisely, to put the deal on hold. Instead of sending a stern message to the Taliban by demanding more forceful terms, however, sources indicate that the president now is considering a withdrawal of U.S. troops with no deal at all, which is exactly what the Taliban wants. 

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We should not withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan unless we have a deal that leaves some hope for preserving our hard-fought gains and the chance for a political process that will lead to a reduction of the endless violence there. This should be obvious, if you consider the three basic choices now facing the U.S. in Afghanistan. 

The first choice is keep troops in Afghanistan, resist the urge to announce withdrawal deadlines, and accept the possibility we may be committed to some military presence in Afghanistan for many years to come. This is an unpopular approach, of course. Polls conducted this summer suggest 55 percent of Americans support withdrawal of troops and only 23 percent are against that. Both Trump and the Democratic candidates are aware of this public sentiment against open-ended engagement in Afghanistan. 

However, this is an option that officials in the Department of Defense are urging and, regardless of popularity, it has some merit. The Taliban is playing the long game, waiting for U.S. troops to depart Afghanistan. More importantly, so are terrorists such as al Qaeda and ISIS, who hope to make Afghanistan a place from which to operate with impunity again. In Iraq, it took less than three years after withdrawal of U.S. troops for ISIS to storm across the country and take more than a third of its territory, which it used to establish a caliphate, the most brutal regime since Nazi Germany. To be sure, other factors contributed to ISIS’s dominance in Iraq, including sectarian policies and myopic rule by Shia officials in Baghdad, but the U.S. troop withdrawal created the security gap ISIS needed. Remember how tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers dropped their weapons in Mosul when a small number of ISIS fighters attacked in 2014? It’s unlikely to have happened if U.S. special forces were there, watching.

An indefinite military presence in Afghanistan does not mean keeping the current level of 14,000 U.S. troops there. Over time, it could be reduced to just special forces in an advisory role, as is happening in Iraq. Also, one way to make an indefinite U.S. military presence more palatable to Americans would be for President Trump, or the next president if not Trump, to exert pressure on our NATO allies to assume a greater role in Afghanistan. The current ratio of U.S. soldiers to other NATO troops is greater than 2 to 1. With good leadership, a U.S. president could invert that ratio and cajole allies to do more. Just this week, Germany’s defense minister warned against the consequences of troop withdrawals in Afghanistan, yet Germany only has 1,300 troops in-country.

The second choice is to withdraw U.S. troops without a peace deal with the Taliban. Trump indicated last week that peace talks with the Taliban are “dead, as far as I’m concerned.” Yet, Trump repeatedly stated that he will follow through on his campaign promises to remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan. I have spoken to a person knowledgeable of the U.S.-Taliban negotiations who indicated that the current plan which Trump is considering is withdrawal of troops with no deal. There are several disadvantages to this. First, it elevates the Taliban's standing without any commitment from it to oppose terrorism or to join a political process with other Afghan groups. The Taliban would be incentivized to continue to fight the elected Afghan government and to embrace terrorism. Second, this would further endanger U.S. troops during a withdrawal, as well as residual U.S. forces left behind, because the Taliban has pledged to attack U.S. soldiers if no deal. 

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The final choice is for Trump to reopen negotiations with the Taliban and finalize terms for a peace agreement, before withdrawing any troops. There’s good reason not to trust the Taliban to abide by its word. However, the deal almost signed provided a 135-day period before any U.S. troops would withdraw, during which the U.S. would closely monitor adherence of the Taliban to its agreement to sever ties with Al Qaeda and ISIS and participate, in good faith, in the political process in Afghanistan. U.S. forces would not withdraw at the conclusion of 135 days unless the Taliban complied. If they did, 5,000 U.S. troops would go but the 8,600 would remain, pending further compliance by the Taliban with terms of the agreement.

President Trump risks his reputation if he enters into a deal with the Taliban and they violate it, but he risks much more if he withdraws U.S. forces with no deal at all. The Taliban would certainly reject the Afghan government which they consider to be a U.S. puppet, would refuse any political process, and would seek to overrun Kabul and re-establish an Islamic state. If they succeeded, the media would be flooded with images of all that is lost — Afghan supporters of the U.S. executed, schools closed, women and children subjugated, and shiny new terrorist camps in the place of U.S. bases.

President Trump and Democratic candidates should realize that exit from Afghanistan at all costs is too costly. Trump should pursue a deal to draw the Taliban into a political process and encourage them to cut ties with terrorist groups. A complete withdrawal of NATO forces can only be ordered when we are certain that Afghanistan will not revert back to a terrorist state without them.

David Tafuri is an international lawyer who served as the U.S. Department of State’s Rule of Law Coordinator for Iraq at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad during the height of the war in Iraq. He was also an outside foreign policy adviser to President Obama’s 2008 campaign. He appears frequently on CNN, FOX News, BBC and other networks. Follow him on Twitter @DavidTafuri.