By The Editorial Board
The administration is keeping two written annexes a secret from the American public.
Why is the Trump administration keeping parts of its deal with the Taliban secret from the public? There’s no point in hiding them from the Taliban, because they have the annexes. The State Department says the reason is to conceal details of military movements from, “for example, ISIS.” But skeptical members of Congress who have seen the documents believe the real reason is that the agreement is so vague on how to ensure that the Taliban are living up to their end of the bargain.
Under the accord signed with the Taliban on Feb. 29, the United States agreed to withdraw all American and allied forces from Afghanistan within 14 months. In return, Taliban leaders pledged not to cooperate with terrorist organizations that target the United States or to let them use Afghan territory, and to open talks with the government (which was not party to the agreement) and other Afghans on a permanent cease-fire and how to share power.
The two annexes that remain classified are said to deal with the criteria by which the United States will determine whether the Taliban are keeping their promises. And it’s hard to escape the suspicion that they are being kept secret from the American public because, as The Times reported on Sunday, the annexes give President Trump “enormous latitude to simply declare that the war is over and leave.”
That has been the sense of several members of Congress, including Republicans normally in Mr. Trump’s camp, who have viewed the classified sections in a secure facility underneath the Capitol. Liz Cheney, the hawkish Republican congresswoman from Wyoming, for one, said after seeing the documents that she remains unsure the deal has sufficient mechanisms to verify that the Taliban are abiding by the terms.
If that’s why the documents are being kept from the public, the secrecy is underhanded. The war in Afghanistan has cost the United States far too much in lives and treasure — 2,400 service members killed, $2 trillion spent — to be used for cheap political manipulation.
The deal has been broadly, if grimly, welcomed by a wide political spectrum at home, including this page. No, it is not a peace agreement — the Taliban did not agree to recognize the current Afghan government, which was not involved in the negotiations, nor to place any limits on their own military capabilities. There is nothing in the deal about the rights of women, elections, a constitution or the role of religion. At its core, the deal is a mechanism allowing American and allied troops to cut their losses in a war that has gone on too long and offers no prospect of a military victory.
But if Americans are ready to exit this war, they want to know that their government is at least leaving its Afghan allies a fighting chance against a ruthless Islamist organization. They want some assurance that the Trump administration has not simply given the Taliban license to break their pledges and restore their brutal dictatorship.
The agreement is already tottering. Peace talks are delayed, and Kabul is in chaos as two contenders for the presidency, the incumbent Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah, each claim to have won the election and held competing inaugurations on Monday. According to reporting by Al Jazeera, there have been nearly 80 attacks in Afghanistan since the agreement was signed. All that may be beyond America’s ability to halt, and further proof of the wisdom of getting out.
But it’s incumbent on the United States to ensure that the Taliban meet their obligations under the agreement, including what the State Department described in a statement as “specific commitments by all parties to efforts to continue to reduce violence until a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire is agreed in intra-Afghan negotiations, while preserving the right of all parties to self-defense.” For that, the statement said, the United States has a “robust monitoring and verification mechanism.”
This is what the secret annexes are supposed to set out, centered on a joint committee to facilitate communications between the United States and the Taliban and describing situations in which it would or would not be appropriate to use force. The Taliban, for example, are to forgo suicide attacks, and the United States drone strikes.
Legislators who have viewed the annexes, however, found the criteria for compliance so nebulous as to make the process meaningless. In any case, that’s something all Americans should be allowed to judge for themselves. They shouldn’t have to simply accept Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s sound bites about a “historic opportunity” to “turn the corner.” Americans know from bitter experience that exiting a long and futile war is messy and painful, and they are entitled to know how their government intends to do it.
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