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Negotiating with the Taliban might be the only way the Afghanistan war ends

A deal with the Taliban is the only way this conflict ends. But if it means conceding on human rights issues, would it be worth it?

A Taliban suicide bomber and six gunmen attacked the Afghan parliament on June 22 as lawmakers met to consider a new defense minister.
REUTERS/Naqibullah Faiq

More than 2,000 Americans have died in Afghanistan since the U.S. invaded nearly 14 years ago in pursuit of Osama bin Laden. Taxpayers have spent $1 trillion-plus on the conflict and efforts to rebuild the country.

So why is everyone talking about negotiating a settlement with the Taliban? After all, any deal would almost certainly mean bringing some Taliban members back into the government.

Because aside from a Taliban victory, a deal with the Taliban really is the only way this conflict ends. And an unusual alignment of new leadership in Afghanistan and a rethinking of priorities elsewhere suggests that if there is any chance to end decades of war, this might be it.

Public focus in the U.S. has largely moved on, and the U.S. role in Afghanistan has diminished. But it remains hugely important. Washington is spending billions annually to prop up the Afghan government. While nearly 10,000 U.S. troops still are in Afghanistan, they are no longer on the front lines (only four have died in Afghanistan so far this year). The Obama administration’s current plan is to pull the remaining troops out by the end of next year.

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The idea of negotiating with the Taliban actually has been around for years.

The first formal meeting between U.S. officials and Taliban representatives took place late in 2010, and a few months later, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton laid out a set of preconditions: the Taliban would have to disarm, accept the Afghan constitution and cut ties with Al Qaeda.

That didn’t really go anywhere. Neither did the effort to defeat the Taliban. When the U.S. military force peaked at around 100,000, it did manage to push the Taliban back. But that’s a far cry from vanquishing a guerrilla movement which, like it or not, has deep roots in the provinces. Ask the Russians about it.

Here you can read a detailed recap of previous negotiations, and an argument for talking to the Taliban now. One of the authors, James Dobbins, was until recently the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

An Afghan government delegation met with Taliban representatives earlier this month, after a series of lower-level contacts.

What’s different this time?

–Pakistan is helping rather than hindering.

–China has gotten involved.

–Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, has made negotiations a priority.

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–And, particularly to the Afghan government, the alternatives look worse.

As the U.S. military pulls back, Afghans are doing more of the fighting. More than 4,000 Afghan soldiers and police have been killed this year, and nearly 8,000 wounded. Still, the Taliban has been regaining territory. For now, there is no danger it will overrun the country, but it’s possible to imagine that it will control some provinces.

The Afghan military and police will need American help for a long time to come. Since Americans seem weary of such entanglements, it’s also possible to imagine that the flood of dollars will turn into a trickle at some point, or the tap will run dry.

In that case, the best scenario for the Afghan government is more war — between two more or less evenly matched foes. The worst is that the Taliban triumphs.  So, if you’re Ghani, maybe it’s a good idea to strike a deal while the Americans have your back.

Plus, the Islamic State, already ensconced in Iraq and Syria, is seeking to expand, and it has gotten a toehold in Afghanistan, mainly by peeling off Taliban fighters.  

There are reports of tensions between the two movements. Again, if you’re Ghani, it makes sense to try to entice less radical elements of the Taliban into an accommodation with the government.

Pakistan has in recent months gotten more serious about fighting the Taliban on its side of the border. Its government seems to recognize that it could be bad for Pakistan if the movement got too strong in Afghanistan. Aside from a spillover of even more violence, it could push Ghani into the arms of Pakistan’s archrival — India.

So instead of getting in the way, Pakistan hosted the meeting this month between the Taliban representatives and Ghani’s government.

As for China, it has sizable investments in Afghanistan, and it’s anxious about radicalization of Muslims in its far northwest (if you haven’t looked closely at a map, it might surprise you that China and Afghanistan share a short border). Plus, it has influence in Pakistan.

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This being Afghanistan, all might well be for naught. There are signs of friction in the Taliban between those who want to talk, and those who don’t. And the movement might conclude that there is more to gain from fighting.

But if there is any chance at all, Dobbins advises the U.S. government to be flexible on the military withdrawal, be prepared to stay involved, and swallow hard on Clinton’s preconditions. There is no chance that fighting will stop soon. And there is little prospect for the Taliban to buy in without bringing the constitution and other elements of Afghanistan’s governing structure closer to its worldview.

Human rights, particularly religious freedom and the status of women, definitely would be at risk.

If that’s the price of peace, is it worth it?