President Trump met with his top national security advisers Friday to consider a deal with the Taliban that could lead to the withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the end of America’s longest military engagement abroad, U.S. officials said.
Mr. Trump in a tweet after the meeting said the U.S. is “looking to make a deal—if possible.”
Joining the president at his New Jersey golf resort were Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, national security adviser John Bolton and Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy leading the peace talks.
“In continued close cooperation with the Government of Afghanistan, we remain committed to achieving a comprehensive peace agreement, including a reduction in violence and a ceasefire, ensuring that Afghan soil is never again used to threaten the United States or her allies, and bringing Afghans together to work towards peace,” Mr. Pompeo said in a statement.
Mr. Khalilzad, an Afghan-born veteran diplomat, is to travel to Qatar’s capital as soon as this weekend to finalize details of an agreement with the Taliban.
Such an agreement, U.S. officials say, would pave the way for negotiations between the insurgents, the Kabul government and other Afghans on future political arrangements in the country and could lead to the end of the nearly 18-year war.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly disparaged U.S. military involvement overseas, and his impatience—as well as next year’s presidential elections—has spurred Washington’s negotiations with insurgents, who control more territory than at any point since a U.S.-led invasion forced them from power in 2001. In June, Mr. Pompeo said Washington hoped for a peace deal with the Taliban before Sept. 1.
Earlier this year, the U.S. said it had reached a “framework deal” with Taliban negotiators in the Gulf state of Qatar, under which U.S. and other foreign forces would withdraw from Afghanistan in exchange for pledges from the Taliban to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a base for transnational terrorism.
Since then, negotiators from both sides have struggled over the details of the accord.
Among the sticking points have been whether and how many U.S.-led coalition troops would stay in Afghanistan to conduct counterterrorism operations, the pace of the drawdown of troops that were dedicated to battling the Taliban and training Afghan security forces, and how long the coalition would remain in Afghanistan, people briefed on the talks said.
There are about 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Roughly half are involved in counterterrorism operations and support for U.S. air operations.
The talks in Doha have occurred against a backdrop of deep mistrust on both sides. In turn, that has led to a debate over how much detail to include in any agreement. The Pentagon has sought very specific terms, in particular concerning the Taliban’s obligations under the accord and the penalties for failing to meet them, the people briefed on the talks said.
Army Gen. Mark Milley, who will succeed Gen. Dunford as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff next month, recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the continued presence of American forces in Afghanistan was necessary for a successful deal and that any premature withdrawal of forces from the country would be a “strategic mistake.”
The Taliban have insisted that all U.S. military personnel must leave the country, but the U.S. has said it wouldn’t fully withdraw its forces unless it was assured that Afghanistan wasn’t a haven for al Qaeda, Islamic State and other Islamist groups to conduct terrorist operations abroad.
The U.S. has instead called for a conditions-based withdrawal.
Besides Taliban security guarantees and a timeline and conditions for the withdrawal of foreign forces, any comprehensive Afghan peace deal also will require the negotiations among Afghans about a cease-fire and power-sharing. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” Mr. Khalilzad has said.
Any announcement of a U.S.-Taliban deal is expected to include a location and schedule for those negotiations, which many Afghans and Western officials fear will clash with the Afghan government’s plans to hold presidential elections on Sept. 28. The Taliban have refused so far to hold direct talks with the Afghan government, which they regard as illegitimate. U.S. officials say they will do so when the troop withdrawal deadline is agreed.
A bombing at a mosque in the Pakistani city of Quetta on Friday served as a reminder of the daunting obstacles ahead. The attack in the Taliban stronghold killed the younger brother of the Taliban’s leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, Pakistani security officials said. The officials described the attack as an attempt by the Afghan and Indian intelligence services to sabotage the Afghan peace process.
Critics of a prospective deal said any agreement with the Taliban amounts to defeat for the U.S.-led effort, saying the Taliban seek to reclaim control of the country, not battle extremists or work with the Afghan government as the U.S. had hoped.
“The Taliban isn’t going to lay down its arms and seek real peace. It is going to use the American withdrawal to free up more resources to topple the Afghan government and resurrect its Islamic emirate,” said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who studies Afghanistan.
There is no evidence, for example, that the Taliban are willing to share power with the U.S.-backed Afghan government, Mr. Joscelyn said. And the Taliban and al Qaeda, which was responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, are intertwined, he said.
Even before Friday’s meeting, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) warned against fully withdrawing from Afghanistan, saying on Twitter that a bad deal could be the equivalent of putting extremism “on steroids.”
“Any agreement which denies the US the ability to have a meaningful counter-terrorism force capability—based on conditions on the ground for as long as needed—is a recipe for disaster,” Mr. Graham tweeted.