The Taliban deal is failing to take hold

President Trump walks from the Oval Office to board Marine One on Thursday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
President Trump walks from the Oval Office to board Marine One on Thursday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
PEACE TALKS between the Afghan Taliban and a delegation including the U.S.-backed government were to begin Tuesday under the accord signed by the Taliban and the Trump administration last month. They won’t, thanks to political chaos in Kabul, where rival presidents were inaugurated Monday, and disputes over a prisoner release. The Taliban has renewed attacks against government forces, killing dozens, despite assurances by senior U.S. officials that a previous reduction of violence would be sustained.

In short, the U.S.-Taliban deal is failing to take hold. Yet the U.S. withdrawal is going forward; hundreds of troops are headed out of the country, officials told the Associated Press on Monday. This raises an obvious question: Does President Trump intend to hold the Taliban to its commitments to break with al-Qaeda and negotiate peace with the Afghan government, or will he yank U.S. forces from the country no matter what?

The signals are not encouraging. On Friday, the president offered the verbal equivalent of a shrug when asked whether the Taliban might overrun the country and reestablish its harsh dictatorship. “It’s not supposed to happen that way but it possibly will,” he answered. “Countries have to take care of themselves.”

His aides, meanwhile, offer conflicting signals. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper published an op-ed in The Post asserting that the U.S. troop withdrawal was “conditions-based” and that a complete withdrawal depends on “progress on the political front between the Taliban and the current Afghan government.” But that linkage appears nowhere in the agreement, which says a full pullout is tied only to a Taliban commitment to prevent Afghan territory from being used to stage attacks against the United States.

Similarly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured several members of Congress before the deal was announced that it did not include a release of Taliban prisoners. Yet the text made public says that “up to” 5,000 members of the Taliban would be freed by Tuesday, before the beginning of inter-Afghan talks, adding “the United States commits to completing this goal.” The Afghan government understandably balked at that provision, which it said should be linked to the Taliban’s acceptance of a cease-fire. No prisoners had been released by Monday, giving the Taliban cause to skip the negotiations.

The prospect for talks is further complicated by the rift between incumbent Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his opponent in last year’s disputed presidential election, Abdullah Abdullah. After U.S. mediation failed, both men declared themselves president Monday, and both indicated they would name negotiating committees for the peace talks. The Trump administration should have headed off this entirely foreseeable split before signing a deal that excluded the Afghan government. But Mr. Trump pressed ahead, no doubt because he is eager to boast of bringing U.S. troops home during his reelection campaign. If he does so heedless of the cost, voters ought not to give him much credit.

The Taliban deal is failing to take hold