Peace With The Taliban In Afghanistan Appears Closer Than Ever. What Could That Actually Look Like?

Operation Enduring Freedom Turns 17

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."


©2019 the Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

SEE ALSO: Taliban Officials Claim Foreign Forces Will Leave Afghanistan Within 18 Months Under Draft Peace Deal

WATCH NEXT: Jeff Schogol Starts A Twitter Beef With The Taliban

In this June 7, 2009 file photo Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) points to a player behind him after making a basket in the closing seconds against the Orlando Magic in Game 2 of the NBA basketball finals in Los Angeles. Bryant, the 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died in a helicopter crash Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. He was 41. (Associated Press/Mark J. Terrill)

Beloved basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven other people were killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California on Sunday. Two days earlier, Army Spc. Antonio I. Moore was killed during a vehicle rollover accident while conducting route clearing operations in Syria.

Which one more deserves your grief and mourning? According to Maj. Gen. John R. Evans, commander of the U.S. Army Cadet Command, you only have enough energy for one.

Read More
A screenshot from a video appearing to show the wreckage of an Air Force E-11A communications aircraft in Afghanistan (Twitter)

A U.S. E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node aircraft crashed on Monday on Afghanistan, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein has confirmed.

Read More
U.S. Marines with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines assigned to the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command (SPMAGTF-CR-CC) 19.2, observe protestors toss Molotov Cocktails over the wall of the Baghdad Embassy Compound in Iraq, Dec. 31, 2019. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Kyle C. Talbot)

One person was injured by Sunday's rocket attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Task & Purpose was learned. The injury was described as mild and no one was medically evacuated from the embassy following the attack.

Read More
The front gate of Dachau (Pixabay/Lapping)

At age 23 in the spring of 1945, Guy Prestia was in the Army fighting his way across southern Germany when his unit walked into hell on earth — the Nazi death camp at Dachau.

"It was terrible. I never saw anything like those camps," said Prestia, 97, who still lives in his hometown of Ellwood City.

Read More
The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) underway on its own power for the first time while leaving Newport News Shipbuilding, Newport News, Virginia (USA), on April 8, 2017. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ridge Leoni)

Against a blistering 56 mph wind, an F/A-18F Super Hornet laden with fuel roared off the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford and into the brilliant January sky.

No glitches.

Chalk up another step forward for America's newest and most expensive warship.

The Ford has been at sea since Jan. 16, accompanied by Navy test pilots flying a variety of aircraft. They're taking off and landing on the ship's 5 acre flight deck, taking notes and gathering data that will prove valuable for generations of pilots to come.

The Navy calls it aircraft compatibility testing, and the process marks an important new chapter for a first-in-class ship that has seen its share of challenges.

"We're establishing the launch and recovery capabilities for the history of this class, which is pretty amazing," said Capt. J.J. "Yank" Cummings, the Ford's commanding officer. "The crew is extremely proud, and they recognize the historic context of this."

Read More