THE OPENING of Afghan peace negotiations over the weekend came six months later than planned and was accompanied by continuing violence around the country and low expectations for early progress. Yet the meeting of a Taliban delegation and one headed by the Afghan government nevertheless is a welcome breakthrough after two decades of war. It offers hope that a political settlement is possible — provided the United States and other Afghan allies remain stalwart.
For years, the Taliban refused any contact with the Afghan administrations that followed the overthrow of their Islamist dictatorship by a U.S.-led coalition. Afghan governments, for their part, insisted that the rebels must first accept the constitution, with its enshrinement of democratic elections and rights for women, before joining peace talks.
The differences over how Afghanistan should be governed remain stark. But, since it long ago became evident that there was no military solution to the conflict, the beginning of negotiations at least opens a narrow path to peace — something for which the Trump administration and its special envoy, former ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, deserve credit. Mr. Khalilzad first negotiated an agreement between the United States and the Taliban, then persuaded the Afghan government to accept its terms — including the painful release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners.
There are two big reasons for doubt about whether negotiations can progress. One is the lopsided terms of the U.S.-Taliban deal, and thus of the balance of power between the two Afghan sides. The United States agreed to withdraw all of its troops from the country by next May, tied only to promises by the Taliban not to target U.S. and other international forces and to break ties with al-Qaeda. The insurgents have not fully delivered on either of those commitments, according to international monitors and U.S. military commanders, and they have continued attacks on government forces, killing and wounding more than 10,000 since the accord was signed in February.
That noncompliance dovetails with the other fundamental problem, which is the evident desire of President Trump to pull U.S. forces out of Afghanistan regardless of the circumstances. Having drawn down U.S. troop levels from 12,000 to 8,600 in accordance with the deal, Mr. Trump pushed for another withdrawal before the U.S. presidential election; as a result, the troop count will be down to 4,500 by November. A logical course for the Taliban is to stall on the talks while waiting to see if a reelected Mr. Trump — or former vice president Joe Biden — will complete the pullout unconditionally.
The chance for an Afghan peace will depend on the willingness of the U.S. president to maintain U.S. forces in place until the Taliban shows a genuine will to settle. Agreement on a comprehensive cease-fire, along with a definitive break with al-Qaeda, should be preconditions for a full withdrawal. The Taliban has incentives to settle, including a desire for international recognition and aid for future governments. If the United States stands firm, then the peace process it has initiated will have a chance to succeed.