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An era of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is coming to a close

Changing Afghanistan was always going to be a long shot. But while the neocons got distracted by the next shiny object, and while they were tearing up Iraq, the window closed on Afghanistan.

Members of the Taliban celebrating a ceasefire in Ghanikhel district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, on June 16.

There was a brief window near the start of the long slog in Afghanistan when the United States could have hoped to change the country’s trajectory. Instead, the Trump administration appears to be heading for the exits, leaving Afghanistan in fundamental ways pretty much as the U.S. found it: chaotic; heavily influenced by Pakistan; and a haven for extremists.

Changing Afghanistan was always going to be a long shot. Nation-building often fails. Afghanistan has frustrated other global powers. But George W. Bush’s neo-cons got distracted by the next shiny object, and while they were tearing up and then trying to rebuild Iraq, the window closed on Afghanistan.

That’s not to say the U.S. presence hasn’t made a difference in the lives of many Afghans, particularly women and urban young people. Nor should we assume that Afghanistan will once again become a haven for terrorists plotting attacks on the United States.

Neither is it a bad idea for the United States to open direct talks with the Taliban, reported to have started this month. President Obama came into office thinking the war in Afghanistan was both necessary and winnable. He ended up pursuing negotiations with the Taliban. Trump initially sent more troops, too, even though he was publicly opposed to continuing the war and the most ardent generals have given up talk of military victory.

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The longest war in U.S. history has to end someday. But how?

The decision to talk directly with the Taliban simply is a long overdue decision to accept reality. Perhaps this is an area where Trump’s impatience with the foreign policy consensus is an asset. Or maybe even the establishment now recognizes that it’s time to get out.

In any case, the Taliban has insisted on talking directly to the Americans, which boosts its prestige (that’s why North Korea’s Kim Jong Un also wanted to talk to Trump). Willingness to do so is a pretty clear indication that the U.S. is intent on getting out – and won’t let the Afghan government hold veto power. It’s worth recalling that when the Nixon administration decided to open talks with North Vietnam, it didn’t even tell the South Vietnamese government.

The Obama administration billed peace talks as a process organized by Afghans themselves, and insisted that the Kabul government have a central role. Then-President Hamid Karzai worried about being cut out of a deal between the Taliban and the U.S. This time, the government of President Asraf Ghani said it welcomes any effort that supports the peace process. He may have little choice in the matter.

In the meantime, the U.S. has resurrected efforts to persuade the Afghan government to pull troops back from isolated rural areas and concentrate on securing the cities. That probably reduces Afghan government casualties while ceding vast rural areas to the Taliban – and makes the question of who controls what a little clearer for negotiators.

Provided serious negotiations do get under way, they eventually will have to include Ghani’s government and Pakistan, as well. Negotiators will have to find a formula for bringing the Taliban into the government, and work out whether and when all U.S. troops leave. Negotiations could collapse, of course, forcing the White House to choose between maintaining the U.S. presence or withdrawing unilaterally.

An agreement won’t stop the bloodshed. There will be more bombings and more fighting as the government and Taliban try to get an upper hand. Corruption won’t disappear, and the Taliban will seek to impose its strict brand of Islam. It’s unlikely anyone will even attempt to get a handle on opium production. It may just not matter as much in Washington.

The Taliban and allied groups include violent extremists (the Islamic State is active in Afghanistan, as well), but the global plots hatched by Al Qaeda there now seem more like the product of distinct circumstances. While there certainly will be new terror attacks, there probably is no one with Osama bin Laden’s resources and ambition. If there is, he’s unlikely to operate out of a country as remote as Afghanistan.

One thing that hasn’t changed is Pakistan’s interest in dominating its western neighbor. The Pakistani army prefers a weak and dependent Afghanistan as it focuses attention on India to the east. It historically has used militant groups to further its aims.

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Former cricket star Imran Khan showed surprising strength throughout Pakistan in elections this past week, thumping the two parties that have dominated the country – when the military hasn’t been ruling outright. Khan once was sharply critical of the army, but has toned it down in recent years. Domestic and foreign observers say it was clear that the army had decided to support him as the best of several poor choices. If he cooperates, the generals will work with him. If not, they’ll get rid of him.

Over a span of 40 years, Afghanistan has been a top U.S. foreign policy concern – first because of the Soviet invasion, then because of the rise of the Taliban and the presence of Al Qaeda. U.S. troops have been there for nearly 17 years, and more than 2,400 have died.

Indications are that era is drawing to a close.