History is filled with examples of Neville Chamberlain’s Folly: Old fools like the British prime minister in 1938 selling out Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union to the merciless bloodlust of Adolf Hitler and proclaiming “peace in our time” when there was no peace.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s new deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan may prove to be a classic example of the opposite phenomenon: A hollow non-deal that only generates universal skepticism and zero expectations but that still might work.
Trump’s agreement is of course full of holes: It does not require the United States to actually pull forces out of Afghanistan until after he wins reelection in November. Once safely reelected, he could break it and rush more troops in.
After all, that was exactly what Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama did when without a qualm he broke his pledge –and that of his own predecessor George W Bush – to pull U.S. troops fully out of Iraq.
Or the Taliban could get tired of waiting for more endless American excuses, delays, prevarications and abandonments of formal agreements and just go ahead and take over the rest of Afghanistan anyway. After all they live there, the Americans do not, and without enormous continued inflows of U.S. money, weapons and military force the Kabul regime wouldn’t last a week.
This agreement is nothing that George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney could not have reached under far more favorable circumstances at the end of 2001 or in 2002. As wise old former U.S. Ambassador Chas Freeman has pointed out, it steers clear of tackling the issue of continued Pakistani support for the Taliban, which is likely to only intensify now in the coming months.
Nevertheless, the deal could surprise everyone by working exactly the modest, incremental but truly consequential way it is supposed.
Even at its best, the deal will lead to a complete Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, re-conquest of Kabul and bloodstained purge of Taliban enemies and U.S. supporters. Those of us old enough to remember the Fall of Saigon know what to expect.
But the agreement could also prove to be a tipping point for finally starting to implementing the national security platform Trump was elected on in 2016: To end the endless cycle of wars unwinnable, costly bloody wars without end launched by George W. Bush and his mighty “Vulcans” (as his sleazy and truly creepy mob of corporate thugs and crazed neocons liked to call themselves).
Trump badly needs the deal: It is in his interest.
This president, who exaggerates wildly about every inconsequential factoid, has also been the most startlingly honest leader in modern U.S. history in his efforts to implement the policies he said he would.
He scrapped NAFTA and the Trans Pacific Partnership. He renegotiated terms of trade with China and the European Union. He has actually had some success in revitalizing the long decaying U.S. industrial base. And he really is serious in trying to get at least some small moves in ending the Bush-Obama Juggernaut of Endless Wars.
The CIA and the rest of the quaintly misnamed “U.S. Intelligence Community” of course continue to ferociously hate Trump and his efforts to slow down their gravy trains – the endless wars that generate needless corruption and trillions in illicit wealth.
However, the mainstream U.S. military, especially the U.S. Army and Special Operations Command actually welcome the change. They have been struggling with soaring suicide rates, especially in elite combat units, endless wear and tear on both men and machines and the dire implications this has had on the ability of the U.S. armed forces to confront any real military power if mad, reckless brinkmanship continue to drive Congress and top policymakers.
On the Taliban side, the cost of almost two decades of struggle and war has been long and hard. They know they are winning and they know all the dynamics of history, politics and conflict are on their side. But the endless conflict continues to take its toll and they are weary too.
There is therefore a surprising degree of mutual exhaustion and overlap of very different interests between Trump and the Taliban. The agreement is far from demanding. It is filled with holes. Both sides will break it at the drop of a hat when it suits their interests to do so. But it does serve notice that even in Washington conflict fatigue on the endless wars that were Bush II’s lasting legacy may be reaching critical mass.
Because no one expects Trump’s deal with the Taliban to hold, the neocon hardliners and Deep Staters in Washington may be less obsessed with sabotaging it. After all, they have plenty of other rotting fish to fry around the world from Venezuela to Hong Kong.
And if the agreement does indeed hold against all expectations, and if domestic criticism of it is less than expected, then Trump, or his Democratic successor next year could follow it up with real troop withdrawals from Syria and Iraq too.
Strategic overextension cannot be sustained forever. Sooner or later, reality imposes withdrawals. That was true for the British and French Empires after World War II and it was true for the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Angola and Mozambique. For the United States today, the deal with the Taliban is as good a place as any to start.