America and the Taliban are edging towards a peace deal

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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 in Afghanistan, says Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s point-man on the country.

The agreement was forged in talks in Qatar that were originally scheduled to last two days but ended up 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 for the Taliban to start negotiating with the Afghan government—something they have consistently refused to do until now.

Osama bin Laden was living in Afghanistan when he plotted the 9/11 attacks on America. It was to overthrow his Taliban protectors 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 to 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—although no details of those have been revealed.

In exchange America seems to have acceded to the Taliban’s main demand: that it withdraw its troops from the country. For years the militants have said that 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. Likewise, the Taliban have long refused to speak to the Afghan government, decrying it as nothing more than an American puppet.

Mr Khalilzad portrays 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,” says Mr Khalilzad, “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 been more coy about the ceasefire and talks. American officials say the Taliban have requested more time to confer among themselves on these. The negotiators have gone home, to do just that. Talks will resume 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 at Davos 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, making 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 the motivations of the two sides. Donald Trump, America’s president, has long indicated that he would like to end the war, which he considers a costly failure. 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 four decades. Resolving deeper disputes, about how Afghanistan should be governed, will depend on the Afghan-to-Afghan talks. Among the chief concerns for many are whether and how the Taliban will participate 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 trample on human rights, especially those of women?

The Taliban have a strong hand and it is getting stronger. Although the war is at something of stalemate, that is thanks to America’s presence. The government’s casualties, America’s generals admit, are unsustainable. A hasty withdrawal would leave the Afghan 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. 

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