There are signs of hope: in particular, an unprecedented three-day cease-fire last month that was observed by both sides and that saw Taliban fighters joining celebrations with government forces and civilians. After decades of war, many Afghans clearly hunger for peace. In that context, a new administration initiative — an attempt to jump-start peace talks by opening a direct dialogue between U.S. and Taliban officials — deserves cautious support. If it can be pursued without undermining the government of Ashraf Ghani, it is worth a try.
Past diplomacy with the Taliban has failed because of the group’s implacable refusal to talk directly with the Afghan authorities in Kabul; it insists it will negotiate only with the United States. The Obama administration tried carrying out secret talks with the Taliban while deceptively describing the process as “Afghan-led.” President Barack Obama’s poor relations with then-President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban’s failure to abide by its commitments led to the dialogue’s collapse.
Several years later, the grounds for diplomacy look somewhat better. Mr. Ghani, who has proved to be a more reliable U.S. partner, is committed to reaching a peace settlement and has made strong efforts of his own to reach out to the Taliban and its sponsors in Pakistan. U.S. forces are no longer saddled with the rigid withdrawal timetable imposed by Mr. Obama, which gave the Taliban a strong incentive to wait Washington out. There are also signs that the insurgents have softened some of their extreme practices and share some interests with the government, including defeating the Islamic State and preventing the permanent fragmentation of the country.
According to reports in The Post and the New York Times, the administration’s strategy is to start talks with the Taliban with the aim of broadening them to include Mr. Ghani’s government and Pakistan. To entice the rebels, U.S. officials are setting no preconditions: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hinted in a recent trip to Kabul that the presence of U.S. and other foreign forces could be a subject of negotiations. That seems reasonable and probably necessary, provided no commitments are made about a U.S. withdrawal before the launch of full-scale peace talks that include the Afghan government.
The diplomatic effort could be hampered by the State Department’s understaffing; Mr. Pompeo should fix that. The greater danger is that the Taliban and its Pakistani sponsors will conclude they can take advantage of Mr. Trump’s lingering impulse to pull the plug on the U.S. mission. If diplomacy is to succeed, they must finally be convinced that they cannot induce a premature American withdrawal during what would surely be a long and complicated negotiating process. That will require U.S. patience — something this White House has in short supply.