WASHINGTON — It was 6,720 days ago that George W. Bush announced the United States was undertaking “carefully targeted actions” in Afghanistan meant to root out the al-Qaida terrorists who had planned and executed the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11. Operation Enduring Freedom, as the military operation was known, would oust the Taliban fundamentalists who controlled the country and had allowed Osama bin Laden’s organization to set up shop there.
“And now the Taliban will pay a price,” Bush declared, speaking from the Treaty Room of the White House.
But the Taliban never really went away, mounting a seemingly endless guerrilla war against the U.S.-backed government and on American and allied troops. On Saturday, President Trump hailed a development that would have seemed impossible in 2001: a peace deal with the Taliban, meant to conclude the longest military conflict in U.S. history.
“There hasn’t been a moment like this,” Trump said in remarks that addressed both the Taliban peace deal and the burgeoning coronavirus crisis. “The other side’s tired of war,” the president said. “Everybody’s tired of war.”
That deal, about a year in the works, was signed on Saturday in Doha, Qatar. It calls for the withdrawal of all 13,000 U.S. and allied troops over the next 14 months, if the Taliban continues with the peace process. The first withdrawal, of around 5,000 personnel, will occur within the next 135 days.
The peace deal stipulates that the Taliban not allow terrorist organizations like al-Qaida “to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”
There still remains the question of how the Taliban will come to terms with the U.S.-recognized government in Kabul, headed by President Ashraf Ghani. Still, the deal represents a victory for Trump, who ran for president in 2016 on the promise to end American involvement in foreign conflicts.
“Many lives, over such a long period of time, were lost,” Trump said. Nearly 2,500 U.S. service members were killed in Afghanistan. An estimated 100,000 civilians were also killed in the conflict. Trump thanked “all of the people in the United States for having spent so much in terms of blood, in terms of treasure.” In addition to the thousands killed and injured, the United States spent more than $2 trillion on the conflict.
As he spoke, Trump was flanked by Vice President Mike Pence; Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar; and Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All members of the president’s coronavirus task force, they were there to address the first reported death from the respiratory illness COVID-19 in the United States.
The confluence of the coronavirus scare and the developments in Afghanistan underscore Trump’s complex standing on the global stage, where he has frequently been a reluctant participant in coalition-driven effort.
On Saturday, however, he thanked the United Nations for helping to broker the Taliban deal. He also said that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “has been great,” in a departure from his usual criticism of NATO’s member nations, which he frequently charges with not paying their share of defense dues.
“I will be personally meeting with Taliban leaders in the not-too-distant future,” Trump added. Trump had intended to meet with Taliban leaders last September, but that effort came to naught. For now, he said he expected the Taliban to comply with its end of the agreement. “They will be killing terrorists. They will be killing some very bad people.”
Most of Trump’s remarks were devoted to the coronavirus, whose rapid thread overshadowed the Taliban agreement. Still, the end of the two-decades-long conflict marks a significant turning point for the United States.
“It’s been a hard journey for everybody,” Trump said.
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