Why the U.S. Agreement With the Taliban to End the Afghanistan War Is a Bad Deal | Opinion

Last month, Sirajuddin Haqqani was given a platform in The New York Times to declare himself a reasonable man and a peacemaker. Sirajuddin's ghost writer was no doubt tasked with penning something that would make our citizens comfortable with the prospect of the United States signing a deal with the Taliban leadership, the militant Islamist organization of which Sirajuddin is deputy leader. Now that the deal has been reached between the U.S. and the Taliban on Saturday, the rosy op-ed should have actually screamed "beware." Sirajuddin has a track record as a dangerous terrorist, and the U.S. has a few accounts to settle with him before we accorded his organization the prestige of a grand deal-signing ceremony.

This does not mean there is no deal to be made: just that the current one on the table requires a few very key changes.

As currently designed, this deal will completely demoralize the current Afghan government and military by conveying undue legitimacy on the wrong factions within the Taliban that are seeking to set the U.S. up for failure; and it will ultimately be used by the same press that gave platform to the killer Sirajuddin a weapon to attack this administration when the peace plan ultimately falls apart.

When I first visited Afghanistan a few years after 9/11, I was shocked by the lack of color and the monochromatic landscape that greeted me as the plane descended into Kabul. As I began to work in the hospital and get to know the Afghan people over the next 15 years, I realized that the color and vibrance of Afghanistan are its people. They are smart and shrewd operators, and they are certainly no strangers to the ways of thugs. The current buzz among these impressive Afghan people is the incredulity that Khalifa Sirajuddin Haqanni was given a platform in The New York Times. After 18 years of war, the paper of record gave a peace arsonist voice during the peace process.

Khalifa Sirajuddin Haqqaqani is a clever opportunistic and destructive presence in the Taliban movement. To use a term more common to our domestic politics, he is a de facto leader in the Taliban deep state, and is the unseen hand of rogue intelligence officials in the ISI responsible for the chaos and destruction in Afghanistan that has killed hundreds of Afghans. This opus of chaos is ongoing as his suicide bomb cells are still active, surveying targets in Kabul. In fact, while Taliban diplomats were finalizing a truce with US representatives, Sirajuddin's bombers struck the Afghan Military Academy.

Based on the op-ed in the Times, it appears his writer was also maneuvering himself between Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and President Trump's The Art of the Deal book. Khalifa, as he prefers to be called, is not very eloquent and doesn't like to speak publicly, but with the recent events it appears that he is leveraging Taliban talks with the U.S. to market himself as a legitimate political actor, all while maintaining control of his terrorist criminal enterprise. The irony of the op-ed is that it speaks of fatigue at the endless war and a desire for reconciliation among Afghans. These are reasonable sentiments, shared by many Afghans, including the commanders and fighters serving under Sirajuddin, who have seen so many of their comrades killed.

But Sirajuddin lives comfortably in Peshawar under ISI protection, far from the battlefield. He and the rest of the Taliban deep state, far from being tired of the war to capture Afghanistan, remain set on winning it, even if this requires sweet-talking the U.S. for a while. Sirajuddin and his ilk would like to pose as the liberators of Afghanistan, while the reality is that their uninterrupted campaign of terror is the primary reason America still has troops in Afghanistan.

The last time that Seraj Haqqani went public was in 2016, when he made a speech to the Taliban's top commanders. In the speech, Serajuddin described a dream in which the Prophet Mohammad appeared with the angel Gabriel and promised to destroy America. On that occasion, Khalifa was motivating his commanders to wage jihad against America and to help the angel Gabriel destroy our country. The Taliban were not shy about disseminating this incendiary material. A recording of this speech was released on Facebook by the Taliban propaganda minister.

As no one has produced any evidence of Serajuddin having had any road-to-Damascus change of heart, we should assume that he is still pursuing his old goals. That would mean that the Times piece was part of an elaborate set up directed at the person of the president and more broadly at the U.S. Let me spell it out clearly: we signed a deal with people who consider their suicide bombers as agents of the Angel Gabriel in the campaign to "destroy America." The game plan is to trick the U.S. into white-washing the Taliban's reputation, as the next step in its campaign to take over Afghanistan. If they could pull it off, it would perhaps be the most spectacular Islamist victory since Salahuddin took Jerusalem.

In his dream Khalifa stated he was visited by the Angel Gabriel, and the Angel Gabriel replied that God had already ordered him to destroy and bury America and he was capable of doing so with one flap of his wings.

A recognition that the culture on which the Taliban leadership draws includes strong supernatural traditions—which can curtail rational decision-making—has strategic significance. On the one hand this concept is used to explain why the Taliban chose to sustain and scale up their military campaign after the withdrawal of most western forces at the end of 2014. As a wise member of the Taliban ulema observed: "They will never dream of peace while they profit from war." And as the past 18 years have shown, Khalifa has profited from war, both as a proxy force for rogue members of a nation state and in the hostage taking business, David Rhodes and Bowe Bergdahl to name a few.

Before Saturday's new pact between the U.S. and the Taliban that called for the withdrawal of American troops over a 14-month period, the Taliban representatives had earlier cut a deal with the U.S. in February in which their fighters declared a partial ceasefire for a week. Understandably, many Afghan civilians welcomed the truce as at least a temporary respite from the horror of the war. But for the Taliban it was a no-brainer. Half the country is covered in snow, so they were not doing much fighting anyway and are spared U.S. attacks during the truce. Taliban on social media are not proclaiming peace and reconciliation. On the eve of the truce – impressions of Taliban Facebook responses were all focused around a central theme. The Taliban saw themselves as using the truce and the subsequent deal with the U.S. to score a propaganda victory, which they translate ultimately into the capture of Kabul. This I can only assume was not U.S. Special Representative Khalilzad's current plan.

The Times piece was a setup to lull the U.S. into accepting that the Taliban have moderated and become reliable partners. But the real setup was the public ceremony, which the Taliban have demanded for the signing of the U.S.-Taliban deal. An Islamist militant organization directly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of its countrymen and two thousand Americans wanted to star in a diplomatic gala, before taking any concrete steps towards peace? I would point out that since President Trump appointed an envoy in September 2018 all concessions were made by the U.S., none by the Taliban. Even this truce was a joke – half the country covered by snow and we are using a one week holiday as a way to test the Taliban? It is the equivalent of guaranteeing there will be no bear attacks in Montana in the middle of winter because like bears, most Taliban stay home for the winter.

Taliban intentions appear very clear. First, use the world's easiest ever seven-day pause during the non-fighting season to "qualify" for their "theatre of a deal-signing" with the U.S. with Secretary Mike Pompeo sitting beside Mullah Baradar. Next, get 5,000 hardened Islamist militants released before political talks even begin, relying on U.S. envoy Khalilzad to bully the Afghan president into agreeing, against his instincts and stated position. Finally, collapse the talks by adopting a hard-line position demanding imposition of their version of Sharia rule and launch their spring offensive, as always planned, but buoyed by the massive propaganda coup of "we have defeated America and been recognized by the world." If this happens, they will be free to simply collapse the talks, reimpose their brand of Sharia, and go back on the offensive against a weakened and demoralized Afghan government. They will also be able to capitalize on the political chaos sewn in Kabul by the U.S. mistakenly only focusing on this deal (while there are several alternate deals that would achieve the same U.S. objectives) and giving a free hand to Iran and Russia to exacerbate the tensions around the election.

I question whether President Trump was already briefed that Khalifa Seraj lives in a house provided and protected by the ISI and that he directed the taking and exchange of U.S. hostages. And do not forget his U.S. hostage who never came back, Paul Overby, the journalist and author from Massachusetts who (foolishly) went to interview Khalifa in May 2014. He was taken hostage on Khalifa's instructions, after which Khalifa has stonewalled confirmation of his fate. In other words, even after the U.S. used its influence to secure the return of Khalifa's brother Anas and maternal uncle Mali Khan, Paul Overby is still unaccounted for.

President Trump will have been briefed by his dealmakers that the Taliban have promised to help suppress the Islamic State and what remains of Al Qaeda. But, coming from Serajuddin, such promises really stretch credulity, as he is practically in bed with Al Qaeda. Have the deal-makers explained to the president that one of the suicide bomb trainer teams working with Serajuddin is the Qari Zakir network? This network carries out suicide attacks in Kabul, kills American forces and carries out assassinations. It is actually a part of core Al Qaeda, which is just subcontracting with Khalifa. It is hard to overestimate just how deeply involved Serajuddin is with some of the most dangerous Islamic militancy on the planet.

It is apparent that President Trump had been briefed that the Taliban were insisting that their deal with the U.S. would be signed in a big international ceremony with 50 foreign ministers, with the U.S. secretary of state sitting beside Mullah Baradar, the other deputy of the Taliban. I believe the president sensed this setup and had Special Envoy Khalizad sign instead. While this was the correct decision by our president, the Taliban are still flooding their current social media channels claiming victory over America.

I have watched over the last three years as our own deep state has tried to subvert our president and deter him and his administration from governing. I would explain to President Trump that deep states exist in all bureaucracies, even terrorist organizations in Afghanistan. However, there is a way forward.

First, since the deal has been signed, work with those Afghans that have helped to build a free Afghanistan so that they can overcome their differences after the election and approach these difficult peace talks with a united front.

Next, Serajuddin and the Taliban should be made to account for the remaining U.S. hostages. This should be tied to any U.S. assistance in securing the release of imprisoned Taliban fighters. Until Serajuddin really has proven that he has given up on his fantasy of destroying America, let's protect our president from exploitation by the Taliban deep state. We should not dignify the Taliban with gala events until they actually agree to peace with their fellow Afghans. We should not help the Taliban script propaganda events to claim that they humbled a super power.

Finally, President Trump should tell his people to put as much effort into getting the factions in Kabul to patch things up (and they are willing) as he has into dealing with the Taliban. This will help ensure we don't inadvertently de-legitimize the Afghan government in Kabul by signing a deal with the Taliban.

The U.S. does not have to be a world policeman and like most Americans I believe we should not fight endless wars. If the Taliban leadership give up this opportunity for an honorable peace, there are viable alternative deals readily available that could salvage the situation and allow for the drawdown of American forces in a short time period while ensuring the stability of the region and a chance for peace-loving Afghans to build a prosperous nation. Unfortunately, the new deal gives the U.S. and the Afghans nothing and the deep state Taliban everything. This would end up destabilizing an ally, returning a region to chaos, and create symbolically powerful propaganda that will be weaponized against this president.

And that is a really bad deal.

Keith Rose MD is an internationally recognized plastic surgeon that has lived and worked intermittently in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past 15 years. He has trained Afghan surgeons and has operated on over 1,000 Afghan children. He is currently working with international NGOs on peace and reconciliation initiatives in the region.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

Afghanistan agreement
(L to R) US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar sign a peace agreement during a ceremony in the Qatari capital Doha on February 29, 2020. - The United States signed a landmark deal with the Taliban, laying out a timetable for a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan within 14 months as it seeks an exit from its longest-ever war. Pompeo called on the Taliban to honour its commitments to sever ties with jihadist groups as Washington signed a landmark deal with the Afghan insurgents. KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images/Getty
Why the U.S. Agreement With the Taliban to End the Afghanistan War Is a Bad Deal | Opinion | Opinion