Ruskpp/iStock(WASHINGTON) — President Donald Trump touted the U.S. talks with the Taliban in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, projecting an air of strength and asserting that the Taliban had been forced to bargain for peace.
"The opposing side is also very happy to be negotiating. Our troops have fought with unmatched valor, and thanks to their bravery, we are now able to pursue a possible political solution to this long and bloody conflict," Trump said.
But in reality, the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist militant group that ruled Afghanistan for a period, have control of more territory in Afghanistan in recent years despite Trump's escalation of U.S. troop levels, and they're now dictating the terms of talks as the U.S. reaches for the exit after nearly 18 years of war, according to experts.
"I don't understand how Trump can say that the U.S. is achieving military success in Afghanistan as the Taliban continues to gain ground. These peace talks, these negotiations — however you want to categorize them –- this is happening because of the U.S. desire and desperation to withdraw from Afghanistan, not because the Taliban is being beaten on the battlefield," said Bill Roggio, editor of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies's Long War Journal, which tracks the U.S. war on terror.
The U.S. has had to reassure its nervous ally, the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, that it will not make a deal without it after being so far been excluded from the U.S. talks with the Taliban. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to President Ghani on Tuesday, with Ghani saying Pompeo "underscored the central importance of ensuring the centrality of the Afghan government in the peace process."
But with the conflict locked in a stalemate, Trump appears poised to pull out at least the majority of U.S. troops — a welcome move for the Taliban, which said Wednesday half of U.S. troops would be gone by April.
"This Trump administration, they are more keen to withdraw their forces from Afghanistan and bring peace in Afghanistan," said Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban chief negotiator told BBC News Wednesday.
A State Department spokesperson denied there was any agreement on a timeline for withdrawal, and the commander of U.S. and NATO forces, Gen. Scott Miller told ABC News's David Muir in Afghanistan recently, "There's no order to draw down."
According to the latest Special Inspector General's report, the militant group controls or contests 46.2 percent of Afghan territory, a slight increase in the last few months. While the Pentagon said last week territorial control is "not indicative" of how well the U.S. strategy is working "or progress toward security and stability in Afghanistan," the most recent U.S. commander said it was integral to both those things.
The U.S. strategy had been to keep Afghan government control at 80 percent of the population because "this, we believe, is the critical mass necessary to drive the enemy to irrelevance, meaning they're living in these remote, outlying areas, or they reconcile, or they die," Gen. John Nicholson told reporters in November 2017.
To drive that policy, Trump increased the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to over 14,000 starting in August 2017, despite his gut: "My original instinct was to pull out — and, historically, I like following my instincts," he said at the launch of his South Asia strategy in August 2017.
While he argued Tuesday that the pressure is why the Taliban is now seeking peace, his stated desire to leave has undermined the U.S. position all along, analysts say.
"Unfortunately, as time has elapsed, the United States and the Afghan government have lost leverage," said Chris Kolenda, a senior adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Pentagon under President Barack Obama and a retired U.S. Army colonel.
"We all know, or can sense, that disaster may be only 280 characters away," he told BBC News, in a reference to Trump's Twitter, "And we certainly hope that we have the patience to let a peace process progress that respects the service and sacrifices of Americans and Afghans alike."
That loss of leverage is evident, especially in how the Taliban has set the terms of talks.
While the U.S. has pushed for "intra-Afghan" negotiations between the militant group and the Afghan government, the Taliban continues to refuse to recognize, let alone meet with President Ghani or his representatives.
While U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad has briefed the Afghan government before and after each meeting, starting last summer, the U.S. agreed to the Taliban demand to meet one-on-one, in a move that critics say has undermined Ghani's government.
"By acceding to this Taliban demand, we have ourselves delegitimized the government we claim to support," retired Amb. Ryan Crocker, who served as U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and several other countries, wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed. "By going to the table we were surrendering; we were just negotiating the terms of our surrender."
That does not have to be the case either, Crocker argued, saying the U.S. could demand the Afghan government has a seat at the table before continuing negotiations.
Kolenda, who also served as the Pentagon envoy for peace talks, said the Taliban even offered to agree to that between 2010 and 2012 after certain confidence-building measures by the U.S. that did not include a demand for U.S. withdrawal. It's one of several missed opportunities to talk when the U.S. was in a stronger position, he added.
Instead, the U.S. has now agreed to a withdrawal of troops, according to Trump and Special Representative Khalilzad. It's still an early framework and, "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed," a State Department official told ABC News.
But what the Taliban has agreed to in exchange. critics say, is not much: A promise to prevent foreign terrorist organizations from using Afghanistan as a safe haven — the very issue that brought the U.S. invasion in 2001.
"The Taliban will offer any number of commitments, knowing that when we are gone and the Taliban is back, we will have no means of enforcing any of them," wrote Crocker.
"The Taliban have said since the 1990s that it wouldn't allow its soil to be used by foreign terrorist groups, and yet it continues to do so to this day, so why should we trust them?" said Roggio. "It's nonsense from the Taliban, and there's no reason you can trust it."
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