America's secret deal with the Afghan Taliban reveals how US Military will leave Afghanistan

America's secret deal with the Afghan Taliban reveals how US Military will leave Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — In a secure facility underneath the Capitol, members of Congress stopped by all last week to review two classified annexes to the Afghan peace accord link with the Taliban that set the criteria for a critical element of the agreement: What constitutes enough “peace” for the United States to withdraw its forces?

The Taliban have read the annexes. Nonetheless, the Trump administration insists that the secret documents must remain secret, though officials have struggled to explain why to skeptical lawmakers.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, in congressional testimony, appeared unaware of — or seemed unwilling to discuss — the secret annexes just days before the agreement was signed. And lawmakers who have paid the most attention to the peace plan also openly express frustration with the lack of a mechanism for verifying compliance that they believe Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had promised.

At the core of the two documents, according to people familiar with their contents, is a timeline for what should happen over the next 18 months, what kinds of attacks are prohibited by both sides and, most important, how the United States will share information about its troop locations with the Taliban.

While it may sound odd that the American military is sharing troop locations with its enemy of 18 years, the goal is to give the Taliban information that would allow it to prevent attacks during the withdrawal. Mr. Pompeo described the annexes last week as “military implementation documents.” link

That is part of it, but they appear to be much more.

Because the documents lay out the specific understandings between the United States and the Taliban — including what bases would remain open under Afghan control — the details are critical to judging whether the United States is making good on its promise to leave only if conditions allow, or whether it is just getting out.

The State Department has struggled to explain why the criteria for the terms, standards and thresholds for the American withdrawal could be known to the adversary but not to the American people or allies. In response to questions from The New York Times, the State Department issued a statement on Friday saying that the documents remained classified because “the movement of troops and operations against terrorists are sensitive matters.”

“We do not want, for example, ISIS to know those details,” the statement added, referring to Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan.

But another reason for the secrecy, according to several people familiar with the matter, is that the annexes leave the markers for peace remarkably vague, making it far from certain that the Taliban must convert into a counterterrorism force — as President Trump suggested a week ago — or that they are required to make complete peace with the elected government of President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan.

In fact, as written, they appear to give Mr. Trump, or his successor, enormous latitude to simply declare that the war is over and leave. But many of Mr. Trump’s aides suggest that American counterterrorism forces and a significant C.I.A. presence should remain in the country. How that will be resolved within the U.S. government, with the Taliban and with the Kabul government remains to be seen, and any resolution likely will prove difficult. Image[image: At least 27 people were killed in an attack on Friday in Kabul. The Islamic State in Afghanistan claimed responsibility.] At least 27 people were killed in an attack on Friday in Kabul. The Islamic State in Afghanistan claimed responsibility.Credit...Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Many of the Republicans and Democrats who have taken the opportunity to review the documents say they are unimpressed

Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 House Republican and one of the sharpest critics of the accord, said before the agreement was signed last week, “Any deal that the United States would contemplate entering into with the Taliban should be made public in its entirety.”

After reading the pact, including the classified annexes, Ms. Cheney said that the deal failed to provide mechanisms to verify that the Taliban was keeping the promises that Mr. Pompeo had described at the signing. “My concerns still remain,” she said, declining to describe the contents.

Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, said in an interview that the thresholds outlined in the annexes were “remarkably fuzzy” and that it was unclear how the United States would measure success.

Representative Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat who served as a senior State Department official in the Obama administration, posted a blistering message on Twitter last week about the annexes.

“Bottom line: the administration is telling a terrorist group the conditions (such as they are) of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, but not telling the American people,” he wrote link. “This is wrong. And it serves no national security purpose.”

Lawmakers have voiced widespread unhappiness about Mr. Pompeo’s outreach on the subject. He called top members on the Senate and House committees dealing with foreign affairs last weekend to give them a cursory heads-up that the documents were coming to Congress, but lawmakers and their aides said they had not heard from him since.

Days before the agreement was signed, Mr. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared to not know about — or seemed reluctant to discuss — the secret annexes.

“Are you aware of any contemplation of any secret side deals with the Taliban?” Ms. Cheney asked on Feb. 26 during a House Armed Services Committee meeting, New York Times has reported.