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Opinion The U.S. deal with the Taliban is an important first step

People release balloons and pigeons as they celebrate in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on Friday, the day before the United States and the Taliban were to sign an agreement.
People release balloons and pigeons as they celebrate in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on Friday, the day before the United States and the Taliban were to sign an agreement. (Noorullah Shirzada/AFP via Getty Images)

Michèle Flournoy, co-founder and managing partner of WestExec Advisors, served as undersecretary of defense for policy during the Barack Obama administration. She is a member of Booz Allen Hamilton’s board of directors. Stephen J. Hadley, national security adviser during the George W. Bush administration, is chair of the U.S. Institute of Peace board of directors. He is also a member of Raytheon’s board of directors.

The agreement just signed between the United States and the Taliban is an important first step in a complex negotiation to end the war in Afghanistan. Under its terms, the Taliban agrees not to fund, train or otherwise support, within the territory it controls, any terrorist groups (including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State) that threaten the United States or the Afghan state it has helped to establish. If the Taliban fulfills this commitment, it will reduce the terrorist threat to Americans and Afghans, enable reduced U.S. force levels and help lay the groundwork for a sustainable peace.

This agreement is a substantial improvement from what was tentatively agreed to in September, before the killing of a U.S. serviceman by the Taliban caused President Trump to halt negotiations. Once talks resumed, the United States wisely insisted the Taliban demonstrate that it had both the will and the ability to reduce violence by requiring a substantial reduction in Taliban attacks for seven days before the signing of the agreement. U.S. negotiators also sought and won the condition that peace negotiations involving both the Afghan government and the Taliban would begin within weeks after signing. This is a major breakthrough, because the Taliban has for the past decade refused to talk to the Afghan government.

At least three elements are essential if these intra-Afghan negotiations are to produce an enduring and sustainable peace.

First, they must be broadened to include all elements of Afghan society — the political opposition, all major ethnic groups, and representatives from civil society, including women and youths.

The Taliban might try to use this inclusiveness to sideline the Afghan government by favoring the nongovernmental representatives. The best way to check such an effort before it begins would be for President Ashraf Ghani to reach out to all these other groups (including his electoral rival, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah) and to lead the process of assembling a truly inclusive Afghan delegation. That would show the Taliban that virtually all elements of Afghan society will oppose any effort to overthrow the republic, discard the constitution and ignore social, economic and political rights, especially those of women.

Second, these talks need to address early on a full cessation of hostilities — the overwhelming priority of the war-weary Afghan people. The Taliban fears that an early cease-fire would lead to the splintering and dissolution of its forces, eliminating leverage in negotiations. But the Afghan government runs the same risk. Similarly, each side fears the other would use a cease-fire to rest, rearm and strengthen its position.

But all sides must take some risk for peace. If the Taliban, having achieved its stated objective of a U.S. troop withdrawal agreement, is seen as resisting a cease-fire, Afghans can conclude only that the Taliban does not truly want peace.

Third, the U.S. troop withdrawal must remain conditional. The U.S. commitment to reduce its forces in Afghanistan from the current level of roughly 13,000 to 8,600 does not kick in until 135 days after signing of the agreement. This gives the United States time to see whether the Taliban is making good on its commitments to reduce violence, fight terrorism and engage in intra-Afghan political negotiations in good faith. Assuming that is the case, further U.S. troop reductions can be negotiated — but troop levels should go to zero only after the Taliban is fully performing on all these commitments and an intra-Afghan settlement has been reached.

Achieving peace in Afghanistan will admittedly be an uphill slog, and success is not guaranteed. All peace negotiations are tests of sincerity played out against huge stakes among factions conditioned not to trust one another. And we continue to have very good reasons not to trust the Taliban. But before the current moment, many said the Taliban would never agree to a reduction of violence. Now many will probably say that an acceptable political settlement is a fool’s errand.

But what is the alternative? After more than 18 years of war, neither the Taliban nor the combined U.S., Afghan and coalition forces have been able to defeat the other. If the United States just pulls out, Afghanistan would in short order descend into chaos and become once again a haven for terrorists, a source of regional instability and a threat to the United States.

So the administration is right to seek a negotiated end to a war that has lasted, for the Afghan people, not 18 years but 40. It is worth testing whether the Taliban also believes it is time to end this war. The current negotiating effort is the best chance we have to spare another Afghan generation a life of war, to safeguard U.S. security and to bring our troops home with honor.

Read more:

Defense Secretary Mark Esper: This is our chance to bring troops home from Afghanistan for good

The Post’s View: The Afghan peace plan has the potential to be historic. But there’s a big caveat.

Barnett R. Rubin: In long-suffering Afghanistan, this is a peace deal worth trying

Josh Rogin: Big questions surround the coming U.S.-Taliban peace deal

David H. Petraeus and Vance Serchuk: Trump was right to abandon the Taliban peace deal. Here’s what a good one would look like.

Javid Ahmad and Husain Haqqani: The Taliban still hasn’t broken with al-Qaeda