Read: How a forever war ends
Then there’s the matter of whether the United States was really prepared to pull all its forces out of Afghanistan. Trump had announced plans to reduce the American military presence by 5,400 soldiers, but to keep more than 8,000 troops there indefinitely to ensure that the Taliban honored its commitments. That would have been close to the number in the country at the end of Barack Obama’s administration.
Taliban negotiators might have told their American counterparts that they would tamp down the bloodletting in return for a U.S.-military drawdown, but they never agreed to a cease-fire as negotiations proceeded. In fact they took the opposite approach, seeking to increase pressure on their adversary by claiming a series of major attacks while the talks progressed. The Taliban condemned a recent assault on a wedding party by the local ISIS affiliate that killed 63 people, but that underscored another danger: Even if the Taliban can credibly renounce violence and pledge not to host terrorist groups, the leadership can’t necessarily control what its adherents do, let alone the activities of rival groups like the Islamic State.
Read: The U.S. isn’t really leaving Syria and Afghanistan
Trump and Pompeo have denounced the Taliban for resorting to violence to enhance its negotiating position, but the United States has likewise concluded that escalating the fight will be to its advantage, intensifying the battle. “We’ve killed over a thousand Taliban in just the last 10 days,” Pompeo said yesterday. “Unfortunately, applying military pressure to the Taliban is necessary to get the negotiated outcome that we’re looking for.”
Still, as with its negotiations with China, Iran, and North Korea, which Pompeo deliberately drew comparisons to yesterday to illustrate Trump’s intolerance for anything short of stellar deals, the U.S. administration has struggled to trade in the leverage it has amassed in Afghanistan for a diplomatic breakthrough. “If they don’t deliver on the commitments that they’ve made to us now for weeks and in some cases months, the president of the United States is not going to reduce the pressure,” the secretary of state asserted in regard to the Taliban, though he tends to say pretty much the same thing these days about the Chinese, Iranians, and North Koreans.
U.S. negotiations with the Taliban have also not included the Afghan government, which America has expended billions of dollars and thousands of lives to defend. The Taliban still calls that government a “puppet” and refuses to recognize it—hence Pompeo’s anodyne reference to the Taliban consenting to speak with “other Afghan brothers and sisters” rather than the country’s duly elected leaders.
Afghan-government officials, in turn, have staked out different positions from the Trump administration, such as demanding that the Taliban adhere to a cease-fire as a precondition for talks. And they have accused the United States of undermining them in the throes of their fight with the Taliban. The Taliban is estimated to contest nearly half of the country’s districts, and control roughly 20 percent of them, but that doesn’t mean it is strong enough to overthrow the government.