Seventeen years after the U.S. military-led invasion of Afghanistan — after the deaths of more than 2,400 American troops, tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers and police and untold numbers of civilians — the prospect of a truce with the Taliban appears to be inching closer to reality.
Six days of talks in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar ended over the weekend with a commitment by U.S. and Taliban negotiators to reconvene soon and the outlines of a deal under which all 14,000 U.S. troops would depart Afghanistan within 18 months.
The talks still don't include the Afghan government, whose leader, President Ashraf Ghani, on Monday warned against a precipitous troop withdrawal and insisted that any peace agreement must be Afghan-led.
But the longest face-to-face meeting between U.S. and Taliban representatives has raised hopes that a deal will be reached.
Here's a rundown of where the talks stand and why many feel this is their best chance of success:
What have the U.S. and Taliban agreed to?
Nothing, yet, except that they will meet again for another round of discussions, perhaps as soon as next month.
But sources briefed by Taliban negotiators said the two sides agreed to the outlines of a deal focused on a few key points.
According to these individuals, who were not authorized to speak to the media, the Trump administration would agree to a withdrawal of all foreign troops and the lifting of an international travel ban on top Taliban leaders.
In exchange, the Taliban would pledge that Afghanistan not be used as a base for attacks against foreign countries. The Taliban's sheltering of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda is what prompted President George W. Bush to order U.S. troops into Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Also on the table — though not agreed to — are a proposed cease-fire and an exchange of prisoners that is likely to include American Kevin King, a university professor kidnapped by the Taliban in 2016.
“The two sides finally agreed on certain important issues,” one source close to the Taliban said.
Zalmay Khalilzad, President Trump's point man in the peace process, said: “There is a lot more work to be done before we can say we have succeeded in our efforts, but I believe for the first time I can say that we have made significant progress.”
Who is involved in the talks?
Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, has injected urgency into a long-stalled peace effort with the Taliban.
Appointed in September with a mandate to end a war that President Trump had tired of — despite sending thousands more troops into Afghanistan last year — the Afghan-born Khalilzad has zigzagged across South Asia, the Middle East and Europe to build support for an agreement.
Perhaps more important, however, is who is sitting on the other side.
Last week, the Taliban announced a new chief negotiator: Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a former No. 2 in the extremist group who was close to its founding leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.
A decade ago, Baradar sought a peace deal with the Afghan government before being arrested by authorities in Pakistan, whose security establishment opposed negotiations. Pakistan quietly released Baradar late last year, following a secret meeting between Khalilzad and Taliban representatives.
Baradar's appointment was widely seen as a sign that the Taliban was serious about reaching an agreement.
What about the Afghan government?
The Taliban has refused to negotiate with the elected Afghan government, describing it as a puppet of the United States. Ghani has quietly expressed frustration over the peace process moving forward without him.
“No Afghan wants foreign troops to remain on their soil for their entire lives, but the current presence is based on a carefully considered assessment,” Ghani said Monday following a meeting with Khalilzad, who flew to Kabul to brief him on the Qatar talks. “That number will be brought down to zero, based on a concrete plan.”
Last year, Ghani launched his own peace bid, offering amnesty to Taliban militants who renounced violence. That move was ignored, and the Taliban has continued to attack Afghan forces nearly every day, chipping away at the government's hold on the country, nearly half of which is now controlled or contested by insurgents.
Khalilzad said any suggestion that the Afghan government was excluded is a “false narrative.”
“I have encouraged the Taliban to engage in direct talks with the Afghan government,” he said. “It is our policy to get to intra-Afghan talks.”
Is Pakistan on board?
Long seen as the spoiler in Afghanistan, Pakistan has sheltered Taliban leaders and failed to crack down on militants who attack U.S. forces.
Trump called out Pakistan for duplicity early in his term and withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance.
Facing a financial crisis, Pakistan finally appears ready to support a peace process. Saudi Arabia, which has sent envoys to the U.S.-Taliban talks, has also reportedly offered to help bail Pakistan out of a financial crisis if it supports the peace effort.
What could prevent a deal?
There are many ways that a truce could collapse — chiefly the relationship between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Taliban leaders want a pathway back into the political mainstream in a country they had ruled until the U.S.-led invasion. They have proposed talks with Afghan opposition groups and have floated the idea of forming an interim government to implement political changes.
Ghani, running for reelection this year, on Monday dismissed the idea of an interim government. But he and other Afghan officials would not be negotiating from a position of strength.
This month, Ghani told an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that more than 45,000 Afghan soldiers and police had been killed in fighting since he took office in 2014. Those losses are far higher than previously known, and U.S. military commanders have long believed the Afghan casualty rate is unsustainable.
Many experts believe the Afghan government might have to agree to some form of power sharing, by allowing Taliban leaders to administer certain provinces or run certain ministries.
The presence of former militants in government would be awkward, to say the least, for Afghan security forces they battled for so long. And it could be devastating for women and girls who were heavily repressed under the former Taliban government and have only won back a measure of freedom since 2001.
But after nearly four decades of war, starting with the insurgency against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, the Taliban is more ready than ever to give up arms, said Mushtaq Yusufzai, a Pakistani journalist who has covered the movement.
“They know they cannot fight forever, but they also don't want to waste their success on the ground,” Yusufzai said. “This war has already eaten up three generations. They are human beings and want to live a normal life.”
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