It has been more than 17 years since the start of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Now a new round of talks with the Taliban has raised hopes that an end to the war could finally be in sight.
Following six days of talks in Qatar last week, my colleague Pamela Constable reported, representatives of the United States and Taliban “outlined but did not formally agree on a broad plan in which U.S. troops would leave the country in exchange for the insurgents pledging to ensure that Afghan territory would not be used by them or other Islamist militant groups to harm American interests.”
After so many false starts in previous negotiations, it’s worth asking whether anything has actually changed this time — and whether either side has made concessions on some of the key issues. Here’s what we know.
How unusual are U.S. talks with the Taliban?
In the past, the United States has often avoided talking directly with the group. Even when the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan, between 1996 and 2001, the United States did not formally recognize the group as the legitimate Afghan government (only a handful of countries ever did).
Bill Richardson, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, traveled to Kabul in 1998 to negotiate with the Taliban. Although he secured an agreement to hold peace talks to end the fighting then taking place in the country, the deal broke down shortly after his departure. A subsequent effort the following year also failed.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States led an invasion of Afghanistan in a bid to capture al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban from control across much of the country, but the group remained a powerful insurgent force and later regained control of many areas it had lost.
In 2010, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested that there could be reconciliation with the Taliban that would allow the group to remain part of Afghanistan’s “political fabric.” But talks between the United States and the Taliban were complicated by Washington’s belief that the peace process should be an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” process; the insurgents refused to meet with the Afghan government, which they consider a U.S. puppet.
This changed last summer, when U.S. representatives began meeting with the Taliban in Qatar — without any representatives of the Afghan government present — and the United States appointed Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador, to be an envoy for peace talks.
Has the United States changed its view of troop withdrawal?
The Taliban has long said that the removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan is a necessary requirement for a peace deal. They may have a sympathetic ear in President Trump, who is a critic of the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan — though he has been persuaded several times that the U.S. military still needs troops there.
But a full withdrawal has long hinged on whether Afghan government forces would be able to handle the threat from the Taliban without U.S. support. Even with U.S. support, the Afghan government is estimated to control only 55.5 percent of the country, according to the most recent report from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
The U.S. military also has been forced to scale back its face-to-face contact with Afghan security forces after several “insider” attacks last year.
It’s unclear whether the U.S. has faith that the Afghan government can either withstand pressure from the Taliban or persuade the group to agree to a lasting cease-fire. Either way, critics of talks with the Taliban say they can’t be trusted not to work against the Afghan government.
“The Taliban have been playing the long game, hoping to wait the Americans out before defeating the inadequately trained Afghan forces,” Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, wrote in Foreign Policy in December.
Has the Taliban changed its views on the use of its territory?
The group has long argued that its ambitions are only local, but it has been aligned with international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. It also harbored bin Laden from 1996 onward.
The United States has long argued that the group needs to stop offering safe haven to terrorists such as bin Laden. Despite years of talks, however, the Taliban consistently refused to eject him, often saying he was lost or demanding more evidence that he was involved in acts of terrorism.
“It became clear that the call for more evidence was more a delaying tactic than a sincere effort to solve the bin Laden issue,” former assistant secretary of state Karl Inderfurth told The Washington Post in October 2001.
Speaking to the New York Times on Monday, Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy, said the Taliban had committed “to our satisfaction” to making sure Afghanistan would not be used this way again. It’s not yet clear what those commitments might be.
Notably, the Taliban is not closely allied with the Islamic State, which now has a presence in Afghanistan. But researchers have suggested that al-Qaeda has a “serious skeleton capability in the region” that could allow it to regroup.
What role is there for the Afghan government?
The Taliban has long refused to deal with Afghanistan’s government, arguing that it is not legitimate. But Khalilzad suggested to the New York Times that the Taliban would need to agree to a cease-fire and talk directly to the Afghan government before talks could proceed further.
It is not yet known yet whether the Taliban would agree to those terms, but the Afghan government has welcomed the possibility of direct negotiations. On Monday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called on the Taliban to “begin serious talks” with his government and reach a “speedy peace.”
The biggest question is whether the Taliban will be able to give up on its long-held view of creating a purely Islamic state to make a political settlement with the democratically elected government — as well as whether it can make improvements in key areas such as the treatment of women and minorities.