What lessons does the Trump-Taliban deal hold for Israel, Hamas?

Dr. Lior Lehrs September 2021

In September 2019, on the eve of the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, President Trump and leaders of the Taliban were scheduled to meet at Camp David. The peace summit was scrapped at the last minute following an attack on American troops in Afghanistan, but the very invitation extended to the Taliban, which Trump revealed on Twitter to the surprise of many around the world, signaled a dramatic shift in US policy on the organization it had toppled its regime 18 years previously. The planned meeting was part of a negotiating process begun in 2018 between the Trump Administration and the Taliban, which included talks in the Qatari capital of Doha and led to the February 2020 “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” signed by the US and the Taliban in the presence of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the head of the Taliban Political Bureau Abdul Ghani Baradar. The latest events in Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban to power, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, shine a spotlight on the controversial Trump-Taliban deal and the lessons it holds.

The issue of negotiations with the Taliban ties in with a spirited debate taking place among scholars of international relations, around the dilemma of which Prof. Robert Mnookin describes as Bargaining with the Devil. The scholarship discusses the question of whether, and when, one should negotiate with terrorist organizations or “rogue states” and try to reach agreements with them. Scholars are divided on the issue, presenting a complex picture. They distinguish between tactical negotiations (e.g. on exchanges of prisoners) and strategic ones (on a long-term political agreement) and offer various distinctions regarding organizations that can be considered potential partners and those that cannot. Opponents argue that negotiations with such actors are both immoral and dangerous, legitimizing terror organizations and potentially encouraging the use of violence. They also contend that promises made by such organizations are not reliable, and even if their leadership accepts compromises it will be unable to enforce them on all the group’s activists. However, advocates of negotiations argue that certain circumstances require dialogue with terrorist organizations in order to end a conflict and bring an end to violence, and that such groups must be offered political alternatives in order to lay down their arms (as was the case with the IRA in Northern Ireland and with FARC in Colombia). Researchers advocating such an approach insist that it is particularly apt when dealing with organizations that enjoy broad public support, alluding to the adage that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.

Policymakers and scholars have struggled with the dilemma over whether to engage in dialogue with the Taliban throughout the war years in Afghanistan. Back in the Obama Administration, some officials (such as the special US envoy on Afghanistan Richard Holbrook) argued that even as the US was carrying out military activity in Afghanistan, it should undertake diplomacy to reach a political agreement that includes the Taliban and would enable a US pullout. Trump believed the Americans should get out of Afghanistan at almost any cost, and acted on this campaign promise by initiating public talks with the Taliban after he came to power. The 2020 agreement between the sides called for a 14-month withdrawal (ending in May 2021), release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners and lifting of sanctions on senior organization officials. The Taliban, for its part, committed to avoid attacks on US and NATO forces and prevent operations by Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State organization in areas under its control.

The agreement did not include the government of Afghanistan, and while the Taliban agreed to talks with the government, the US withdrawal was not conditioned on domestic political arrangements (such as anchoring women’s rights and other constitutional issues). The agreement was designed to stop the attacks on international forces deployed in Afghanistan but did not prevent an escalation of Taliban terrorism and gradual takeover of various parts of the country. Critics of the agreement argued that once a pullout date was set, the Taliban launched preparations to retake control of the country, making peace talks with the government irrelevant. Supporters of the agreement argued that it would bring an end to 20 years of war.

The Afghan arena is particularly unique and complex, requiring a cautious approach when comparing it with others and drawing any conclusions. It is obviously very different from the Israel-Gaza arena. Nonetheless, let us examine, cautiously, what similarities can be found between Trump-Taliban agreement and the arrangements made by former Prime Minister Netanyahu and Hamas in recent years and how these cases relate to the debate among scholars over negotiations with terrorist organizations. In both cases one can point to a radical change in policy – from one of all-out war intended to bring down a regime to one of dialogue and search for accommodation. Both cases illustrate the limits of power and the process of learning in conflict arenas (by both sides). They also highlight the gap between government declarations against negotiating with terrorist organizations and de facto policy. In Netanyahu’s case, the gap was particularly wide given the deeply held principles he described in his books ruling out dialogue with terror organizations and his 2009 election campaign promise to bring down Hamas’ rule in Gaza. It should also be noted that the Trump Administration did not conceal its contacts with the Taliban. The meetings between senior representatives of both sides and the agreements they reached were made public (although claims were made of secret appendixes), unlike the Netanyahu government that kept the contacts and understanding reached with Hamas secret and never revealed their contents to the world (a policy that suited both sides).

The two cases reflect precisely the dilemma arising from the scholarly literature in this field: Trump and Netanyahu came to realize that Hamas and Taliban are an integral part of the conflict arena and cannot be ignored, and sought to formulate new game rules with them. However, their critics argued that the negotiations with these groups legitimized and empowered them, while the agreements reached with them failed the test of time. In conducting this discussion, one must also ask what alternatives were available to the sides at each stage, if any, and why these were not chosen.

Both the Biden Administration and the Bennett-Lapid government inherited arrangements with these organizations from their predecessors and had to decide whether to adhere to them once they came to power. The Trump Administration had already signed the deal with the Taliban and Netanyahu had maintained a framework of understandings with Hamas for several years. President Biden, as we know, made a decision. While he did delay the withdrawal from Afghanistan by several months, he completed it in full as determined in the agreement. The Israel-Hamas case is different. While Israel has not reached a long-term public agreement with Hamas, a certain set of expectations has been put in place over time. Following the most recent round of fighting with Gaza, elements in Israel and elsewhere urged a change in approach. While the Netanyahu governments sought to exploit the dialogue with Hamas in order to deepen the divide between Gaza and the West Bank and weaken the Palestinian Authority (PA), some in the new government and the international community are seeking to change the rules of the game in order to strengthen the PA and restore its involvement in the Gaza Strip.

The negotiating process between the US and the Taliban could teach Israel about the risks that inherent in such moves. Even when it becomes obvious that dialogue is required with such “rogue” players, the diplomatic strategy must not focus solely on this dimension; contacts with them must be part of a broader policy move that includes additional international and local elements and be guided by long-term political thinking.

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