COULD THERE be a ray of hope for Afghanistan? After 17 years of fighting, America and the Taliban may be ready to lay down their arms. The adversaries have agreed in principle on a framework for ending their war, says Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s point man on Afghanistan.
The outline was forged in talks in Qatar that were originally scheduled to last two days but ended up being extended to six. It envisages America withdrawing troops in return for assurances that Afghanistan will never again become a haven for international terrorists. America also wants a ceasefire and the start of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which the Taliban have resisted until now.
Osama bin Laden was living in Afghanistan when he plotted the 9/11 attacks on America. It was to overthrow his protectors in the Taliban and to search for him that America first dispatched troops to the country in 2001. Part of their mission ever since has been to hunt for terrorists. The other part—helping build a stable democracy—has been justified on the grounds that Afghanistan may otherwise become a base for terrorists again.
Although in 2001 the Taliban invoked Afghan traditions of hospitality in their refusal to hand over bin Laden, for at least the past decade they have promised that Afghan soil will not be used to launch attacks on other countries. They not only repeated those assurances in Qatar, Mr Khalilzad says, but also agreed to provide guarantees and an enforcement mechanism—though he has not revealed any details of those.
In exchange America seems to have acceded to the Taliban’s main demand: that it withdraw its troops from the country. For years the insurgents have said the starting point for talks must be the end of what they call the American occupation. They do not believe America’s assurance that it does not want a permanent military presence in the country. An American pull-out now appears to be on the table although, again, the timing and scale remain unclear.
The two other steps discussed in Qatar are a ceasefire and talks between the Taliban and the government of Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s president. The Taliban have thus far refused a truce, except for three days last year during a Muslim holiday. This has been dictated both by uncompromising ideology and by pragmatism. Commanders fear it may be difficult to motivate fighters again if they lay down their weapons for a long spell. The Taliban have also long refused to speak to the elected Afghan government, which they claim is an American puppet.
Mr Khalilzad presents all four main elements of the deal—the exclusion of international terrorists, an American withdrawal, a ceasefire and talks between the Taliban and the government—as an indivisible package. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” he says, “and ‘everything’ must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive ceasefire.”
The Taliban are less clear. They have triumphantly briefed their supporters about the progress towards a withdrawal, but have been more coy about the ceasefire and talks. American officials say that the Taliban have requested more time to confer among themselves on these. Their negotiators have gone home to do just that. Talks will resume later in February.
After years of gloom, any progress is welcome. Afghanistan’s war has claimed more than 24,000 civilian lives since 2009. Mr Ghani admitted last week that 45,000 members of his security forces had died since 2014. The war and a series of other conflicts that preceded it have blighted a beautiful country, leaving it one of the poorest in the world. The framework is “historic”, says Graeme Smith of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank. “This is closer than we have ever been so far to some kind of settlement process.”
But the framework glosses over many of the thorniest issues and, despite the desire for peace, there are concerns about motivations on both sides. Donald Trump, America’s president, has long indicated that he would like to pull American troops out of Afghanistan. That could cause Mr Khalilzad to embrace a deal that is not so much a hard-fought compromise as a figleaf to cover America’s retreat. The Taliban, for their part, may make promises they have no intention of keeping, on the assumption that America will be reluctant to return once it has withdrawn.
Mr Khalilzad’s framework focuses on questions that stem from 9/11. Yet Afghanistan has been at war for 40 years. Resolving deeper disputes, about how Afghanistan should be governed, will depend on Afghan-to-Afghan talks. Among the chief concerns for many are whether and how the Taliban will take part in Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy. Are they prepared to sit down with factions that they battled in the 1990s? Do they want to seize power themselves? Will they continue to murder girls for going to school?
The Taliban have a strong hand and it is getting stronger. Although the war is at something of stalemate, that is thanks only to America’s presence. The government’s casualties, America’s generals admit, are unsustainable. A hasty withdrawal would leave the government vulnerable, even if talks with the Taliban are under way. A lasting settlement will probably not come from a blockbuster deal. Instead it is likely to involve gradual and incremental steps. That would require Mr Trump to deploy a virtue he is not known for: patience.