By agreeing to pause hostilities for seven days, the U.S. and the Taliban could set Afghanistan on the path toward a peace agreement that has eluded the country for nearly two decades.
But analysts say an agreement between the Trump administration and Taliban representatives, a year and a half in the making, would actually be the easy part.
What follows is likelier to be much more complex: negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government officials over a possible role for the Islamist militant group in the government and the future shape of the Afghan state.
The U.S. and Taliban are expected as early as Sunday to announce a truce that would begin with a seven-day “reduction in violence” by both sides. If it succeeds, the longtime adversaries would sign a broader agreement whose details have not been disclosed, but are believed to include a timetable for the phased withdrawal of U.S. troops.
In exchange, the Taliban would agree to stop transnational terrorist groups from operating in Afghanistan — their sheltering of Al Qaeda is what prompted the U.S.-led invasion of Aghanistan in 2001 that resulted in their loss of power — and to enter into talks with the Afghan government and other power brokers.
It is those intra-Afghan talks that will determine whether a country that has been mired in conflict for many decades can achieve a durable peace.
“The U.S.-Taliban deal is not a peace deal,” said Laurel Miller, Asia director for the International Crisis Group. “It’s a first step in that direction. The peace process will be the talks among Afghans, which may or may not reach a conclusion.”
If the U.S. and Taliban sign an agreement, they will have achieved several breakthroughs. One is that the Taliban, by committing to sit down across the table from President Ashraf Ghani and other Afghan leaders, would acknowledge the legitimacy of a government they have long dismissed as a Western puppet.
But another is that the U.S. will have acknowledged that it cannot defeat the Taliban militarily and is willing to support a peace process that could result in militant leaders holding power in the Afghan government, one that American taxpayers have spent billions of dollars to build and finance since the invasion nearly two decades ago.
When the Taliban ran the country for several years in the late 1990s, the fundamentalist group banned girls’ education, persecuted religious minorities, carried out public executions and refused to share power.
U.S. negotiators say the group is now ready to renounce violence and acknowledge pluralism. But others believe that factions within the group clearly remain committed to a fundamentalist form of Islamic sharia law.
“The Taliban leadership have little interest in acquiring office or seeking resources,” Sayed Madadi, a political analyst now working for the Afghan government, wrote in a recent commentary. “Their ideology prevents them from agreeing to anything short of a structure dominated by their fundamentalist value system.”
Omar Samad, a former Afghan diplomat who is nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said the talks could reshape Afghanistan’s post-2001 political order.
“It could be a power-sharing arrangement, constitutional amendments, a whole new system,” Samad said. “Some very basic questions that we thought we had resolved over the past two decades, such as the rights of women and minorities, how to shape the national security forces, how to reintegrate Taliban fighters — these are all very complicated issues that have to be dealt with.”
The Taliban also would be negotiating from a position of strength, across the table from an Afghan political and military establishment that has only grown more divided. Since the last attempt at a U.S.-Taliban truce collapsed in September, Afghanistan held a presidential election that has been so mired in allegations of irregularities that a winner has yet to be declared.
Ghani, who has claimed victory in the election, has said he wants to lead the official delegation. But other religious, ethnic and military leaders are also jockeying to play a role.
The Afghans’ effort to move toward talks “has built little trust and confidence, so that needs to be addressed quickly,” said Christopher Kolenda, a former U.S. military commander in Afghanistan who later held exploratory talks with the Taliban beginning a decade ago.
In September, President Trump was in the midst of arranging a secret meeting with the Taliban at the Camp David presidential retreat, despite opposition from leading U.S. security officials. He abruptly canceled the session and said he was calling off peace trucks when, amid the controversy, a car bomb killed an American soldier near Kabul.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Saturday that the latest proposal negotiated between U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban “looks very promising” and called it the best chance for peace in Afghanistan.
“It is my view as well that we have to give peace a chance, that the best if not the only way forward in Afghanistan is through a political agreement, and that means taking some risk,” Esper told an audience at the Munich Security Conference in Germany.
There is certainly risk that the U.S. could withdraw its forces only to have the Afghan talks fail, prolonging the bloodshed or leading to a total Taliban takeover.
The roughly 12,000 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan, advising local troops and conducting counterterrorism missions, provide a crucial support system for the Kabul government and the most reliable source of air power at a time when Taliban forces have proven capable of overrunning the Afghan army and now are estimated to control between one-third and one-half of the country.
In 2019, as hostilities increased with the Taliban as well as militants loyal to Islamic State, the U.S. launched more than 7,400 airstrikes in Afghanistan, the most in at least a decade.
The U.S.-Taliban deal is expected to include the withdrawal of a few thousand American troops within months. Whether the Trump administration will agree to a total withdrawal is not yet clear.
The Taliban have long demanded all foreign troops leave, and Trump has said he wants to bring U.S. forces home, telling a TV interviewer last week that “we shouldn’t be there.” But senior U.S. diplomats and Pentagon officials believe that some residual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is needed.
Still, even skeptics agree that an intra-Afghan dialogue needs to start soon.
“We can’t continue shooting at each other,” Samad said. “We need this discussion to start as soon as possible.”