For George W. Bush, the goal was the destruction of al-Qaeda, the total defeat of the Taliban, and a “stable and free and peaceful” Afghanistan. For Barack Obama, it was a degraded Taliban that could be reasoned with but would have to renounce violence, respect women, and abide by the Afghan constitution. For Donald Trump, it was just a reduction in violence and a clear path to the door—the Afghans themselves would have to figure out the rest.
Over nearly two decades of war in Afghanistan, the United States government went from seeking to annihilate the Taliban, to meeting with them furtively, to negotiating with them openly, before, finally, signing a deal with them. And at each juncture, the expectations dropped.
The agreement the United States and the Taliban signed today is both truly momentous for happening at all and severely modest for what it contains. In essence, it extends a seven-day truce in which U.S. and Taliban forces refrained from attacking each other, calls for Afghans to talk among themselves, and lays out a plan for a U.S. withdrawal over 14 months. The U.S. isn’t going anywhere immediately, and neither is the Taliban; there’s not even a full cease-fire. Implicit in all of it is the larger recognition that, for the U.S., getting out of Afghanistan will mean lowering the bar.
Administration officials themselves seem determined to hold down expectations. “We’re not getting to a peace deal,” a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in a briefing days before Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to Doha for the signing ceremony. “We’re getting to the start of a discussion about a political settlement, or a peace deal … But we are at the very, very beginning of this process.”
The deal specifies that the U.S. will pull all its forces from the country in little over a year, provided the Taliban lives up to its end of the agreement. Yet the Taliban has managed to fudge even two key U.S. goals that remain: The group does not formally renounce al-Qaeda or formally recognize the Afghan government, instead saying that al-Qaeda can’t use Taliban territory to threaten the U.S. or its allies and that it will participate in intra-Afghan peace talks. Women will take part in those talks, but Pompeo said this month that it’s up to Afghans to decide how their rights would be protected—effectively dropping Obama-era demands from the agenda. (The Taliban, which has consistently demanded that the United States must leave immediately, has also fallen short of that goal: The deal says the U.S. will draw down to 8,600 troops within 135 days—bringing troop numbers back around to the level they were when Trump took office.)
This agreement may enshrine the more limited ambitions of the U.S. in Afghanistan, but, in fact, the bar lowering started not long after the war did, as three successive presidents searched for victory and instead found more violence. Indeed, American ambitions actually looked deceptively modest in 2001, because the war was supposed to be easy—an overthrow of the Taliban government then running Afghanistan, a bit of humanitarian help, and the election of a new friendly government to ensure that terrorists couldn’t use the country to attack the United States. But by 2006, the Taliban had launched an insurgency, and Bush wound down his presidency in 2008 by sending thousands more U.S. troops to the fight. By then, the most immediate goal was to “restore basic security”—a far cry from his earlier hopes for “a free and stable democracy.”
Obama simultaneously raised resources—troop numbers went up from 31,000 at the end of the Bush administration to around 100,000 in 2010—and lowered expectations for what could be achieved. He spoke of the need simply to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda” and prevent its return to Afghanistan. Around the same time, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged that the administration was pursuing contacts with the Taliban, but insisted that any negotiations required the following outcomes: “Insurgents must renounce violence, abandon al-Qaeda, and abide by the constitution of Afghanistan, including its protections for women and minorities. If insurgents cannot meet those red lines, they will face continued and unrelenting assault.”
“Look, this is Afghanistan,” one anonymous American official told The New York Times in 2012. “Is it going to be Switzerland? No.” The paper noted at the time that the mantra around Washington was “Afghan good enough,” and that expectations for the central government in Kabul even to simply control all of Afghanistan’s territory had evaporated. Then National Security Adviser Tom Donilon just wanted “a degree of stability” to keep al-Qaeda from launching attacks, the Times reported, but even that was elusive. Lawrence Nicholson, the now-retired Marine lieutenant general who led a troop surge into the southern province of Helmand in 2009-2010, told me, “A lot of the areas that we had stabilized and cleared of Taliban went right back [to Taliban control] after we left … It was like pulling your hand out of a bucket of water.”
So Trump, when he came into office, was not unique in his desire to leave—and then became the third president in a row to decide to send more troops. “My original instinct was to pull out,” he said in 2017, “and historically, I like following my instincts.” But: “The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable.” He offered no affirmative reason for staying, mentioning only the risks of leaving. Ensuring women’s rights was no longer part of the goal.
It still took Trump’s envoy Zalmay Khalilzad more than a year of negotiations to get a deal. Last fall, the U.S. and the Taliban were on the verge of signing an agreement when Trump pulled out, citing an American soldier’s death in Kabul. He revealed in a tweet that he had scrapped an extraordinary plan to host Taliban representatives at Camp David, along with the Afghan president, within a few days of the anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
This time it’s just Pompeo in Doha and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in Kabul, though Trump said last week he would have been perfectly willing to sign the agreement himself. The deaths of two U.S. servicemen in Afghanistan this month didn’t derail the talks; they died not in a Taliban attack, but at the hands of an Afghan in army uniform. Those men brought to six the number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan this year—now 2,348 over the course of the conflict. Some 43,000 Afghan civilians have died, by one estimate; Afghan security forces were dying at a rate of about 9,000 a year for four years until 2018; then the U.S. military said casualties were higher in 2019 but classified the statistics.
The senior administration official who held the briefing on the deal ahead of time acknowledged “a healthy skepticism in many quarters” about it and even highlighted risks. “Nobody sees an increasing return on violence in Afghanistan,” the official said. “It may be that circumstances don’t play out the way we want [them] to. But we do believe this is the very best chance.”
That chance relies on the trustworthiness of the Taliban. Even in the group’s recent appeals to a U.S. public that may be just as eager for its troops to leave Afghanistan as the Taliban is to drive them out, Taliban representatives have refused to acknowledge al-Qaeda’s responsibility for the September 11 attacks. Last September, a Taliban spokesman told CBS that “still it is not known” who was behind those attacks. Just this month, the Taliban’s deputy head declared in a Times op-ed, “Reports about foreign groups in Afghanistan are politically motivated exaggerations by the warmongering players on all sides of the war.”
Robert Grenier was the CIA station chief in Islamabad when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan—almost 20 years ago, he tried to prevent the war by the same means Trump is now trying to end it: negotiating with the Taliban. Grenier tried to persuade a Taliban official to give up Osama bin Laden and possibly stop the invasion altogether. But even with the threat of a U.S. invasion bearing down, his interlocutor could not get the movement to sever ties with al-Qaeda or hand over bin Laden. “What’s unusual about my perspective is I’ve been willing to deal with these people,” Grenier told me recently. He said he feared that the president was seeking a face-saving way out of the conflict, and was relying too much on the word of the Taliban—a fundamentalist group—to protect the world from radicals they’ve shown no inclination to renounce, let alone control. He said, “I have no reason to believe that this is a decent agreement.”