WASHINGTON (AP) – After President Donald Trump signed a peace accord with the Taliban in February 2020, he optimistically proclaimed that “we believe we will succeed in the end.” His Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said the administration was “seizing the best opportunity for peace in a generation.”
Eighteen months later, President Joe Biden points to the agreement signed in Doha, Qatar, while trying to deflect the blame for the Taliban who invaded Afghanistan in a bombing raid. He says it forced him to withdraw American troops, setting the stage for the chaos engulfing the country.
But Biden can only go so far by stating that the deal boxed him in. It had an escape clause: The United States could have pulled out of the agreement if the Afghan peace talks failed. They did, but Biden decided to stay, although he delayed the full withdrawal from May to September.
Chris Miller, acting secretary of defense in the final months of the Trump administration, was upset by the idea that Biden was handcuffed by the deal.
“If he thought the deal was bad, he could have renegotiated it. He had many opportunities to do that if he wanted to, ”Miller, a senior Pentagon counterterrorism official at the time the Doha agreement was signed, said in an interview.
However, renegotiation would have been difficult. Biden would have had little influence. He, like Trump, wanted American troops out of Afghanistan. Getting out of the deal could have forced him to send thousands more back.
He made that point Monday, saying in a televised speech from the White House that he would not commit to sending more American troops to fight for the future of Afghanistan and at the same time going back to Trump’s agreement to suggest that the path of withdrawal was default by its predecessor.
“The choice I had to make, as your president, was either to abide by that agreement or to be prepared to fight the Taliban again in the middle of the spring fighting season,” Biden said.
The Taliban’s takeover, much faster than officials in either administration had imagined, has prompted questions even from some Trump-era officials about whether the terms and conditions of the deal, and the decisions that followed, afterward, they did enough to protect Afghanistan once the US military. taken out.
The landmark agreement was always a high-level diplomacy, requiring a degree of trust in the Taliban as a potential peace partner and was signed despite skepticism from war-weary Afghans who feared losing authority in any peace agreement. power sharing.
“The Doha deal was a very weak deal, and the United States should have gotten more concessions from the Taliban,” said Lisa Curtis, an expert on Afghanistan who served during the Trump administration as senior director of the National Security Council for Central Asia. and from the South.
He called it an “illusion” to believe that the Taliban might be interested in lasting peace. The resulting deal, he said, was heavily skewed toward the Taliban, helped undermine Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (he fled the country on Sunday) and facilitated the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners without a commensurate concession from the Taliban.
“They wanted American forces to withdraw, and they wanted to take over the country militarily, and they believed they could do it,” Curtis said of the Taliban. “That was very clear.”
The agreement called for the United States to reduce its forces to 8,600 from 13,000 over the next three or four months, and for the remaining American forces to withdraw in 14 months or before May 1.
It stipulated commitments the Taliban were expected to make to prevent terrorism, including specific obligations to renounce al-Qaida and prevent that group or others from using Afghan soil to plan attacks against the United States or its allies. Although the agreement required the Taliban to halt all attacks on US and coalition forces, it is important that it did not explicitly require them to expel al-Qaida or to halt attacks on the Afghan army or offensives to seize control. from Afghan cities or other populated areas.
The agreement provided significant legitimacy for the Taliban, whose leaders met with Pompeo, the first secretary of state to meet with the group’s leaders. There were also discussions about his arrival in the United States to meet with Trump.
Still, Trump spoke cautiously about the deal’s prospects for success and warned of military firepower if “bad things happen.” Pompeo similarly said that the United States was “realistic” and “moderate,” determined to avoid endless wars.
US officials made it clear at the time that the agreement was based on conditions and that the failure of the Afghanistan peace talks to reach a negotiated settlement would have overturned the withdrawal requirement.
A day before the Doha agreement, one of the main advisers to the US chief negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, said that the agreement was not irreversible and that “the United States has no obligation to withdraw troops if the Afghan parties cannot reach to an agreement or if the Taliban show bad faith in the course of this negotiation. “
Those negotiations were intended to begin a month after the signing of the agreement between the United States and the Taliban, but were delayed amid disputes between the Taliban and the Afghan government over the release of prisoners. Amid numerous starts and starts, the negotiations had produced no results when Biden announced his withdrawal decision in April. Nor have they done so since.
Miller said it was the “right approach” and necessary to force Ghani to negotiate. He said the Doha deal was always supposed to be “phase one” of the process, and the next part would be for the United States to use its influence to get Ghani to negotiate a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban.
“Obviously, he wasn’t excited about that, but he was going to do it, or they were going to eliminate him,” Miller said. “We were going to seriously pressure him to make a deal with the Taliban.”
However, in hindsight, Curtis said, the United States should not have entered the Doha talks “unless we were prepared to represent the interests of the Afghan government. It was an unfair negotiation, because no one was looking out for the interests of the Afghan government. “