President Donald Trump has just made his clearest statement yet that he intends to remove US troops from Afghanistan and end America’s longest war.
Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Trump administration and the hardline Islamist group had agreed to a “nationwide reduction in violence across Afghanistan.” If it more or less held, both sides would sign a peace deal on February 29.
Clearly, the president feels the temporary ceasefire was a success: On Friday afternoon, Trump announced that the longtime warring parties will finally put pen to paper.
“Soon, at my direction, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will witness the signing of an agreement with representatives of the Taliban, while Secretary of Defense Mark Esper will issue a joint declaration with the government of Afghanistan,” Trump said in a statement released by the White House.
The signing would conclude years-long negotiations between the US and the Taliban. But there’s still a lot to do before most of America’s 12,000 service members can leave Afghanistan.
The Taliban and the Afghan government need to come to their own peace agreement, a process that could take months to years, experts say. Those talks, scheduled to start on March 10, will be very tricky, because the insurgents reject Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s administration as an American puppet with little control outside the capital.
Trump, though, offered qualified optimism in his statement. “If the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan live up to these commitments, we will have a powerful path forward to end the war in Afghanistan and bring our troops home,” he said.
“Ultimately, it will be up to the people of Afghanistan to work out their future,” Trump added. “We, therefore, urge the Afghan people to seize this opportunity for peace and a new future for their country.”
Afghan officials, on the other hand, seem a bit more skeptical. “We are giving it a sincere chance,” a senior Afghan official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told me last week after Pompeo’s announcement. “It’s hard to trust the Taliban,” the official added.
The risk for Trump seems worth it, though. When he announced an additional troop surge to Afghanistan in 2017, he betrayed his longstanding unease with the war. “My original instinct was to pull out — and, historically, I like following my instincts,” he told a military audience. “But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office; in other words, when you’re President of the United States.”
The calculus is different for him now that he’s up for reelection in November. He wants to shore up support among his base and perhaps pick off some antiwar Democrats. Bringing troops home — as he’s long shown a desire to do — could do the trick.
Even if this decision is mainly politically motivated, he’s still taking the biggest step of any president since 2001 toward ending the war in Afghanistan.