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A Deal With the Taliban Is Only the First Step Toward Peace

The Real Negotiations Are About to Begin

At the site of a car bombing in Kabul, August 2019 Omar Sobhani / Reuters

After months of closed-door negotiations in Doha, Qatar, the United States appears close to finalizing a deal with the Taliban that would end Washington’s 18-year war in Afghanistan. The agreement would reportedly set a conditional timetable for the United States to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in exchange for Taliban commitments to suppress terrorist groups and open peace talks with their fellow Afghans.

The deal is controversial. Supporters (and I am one of them) view the agreement as far preferable to the status quo—a bloody battlefield stalemate—and a necessary first step toward any deal among Afghans to end the war. Critics worry that the deal sells out Washington’s Afghan allies, places naive trust in an extremist group, and provides cover for a troop withdrawal that Trump wants regardless of whether it makes diplomatic or military sense.

Ultimately, though, no U.S.-Taliban agreement will determine Afghanistan’s future. Talks with the Taliban, the Afghan government, and other Afghan parties are far more important, and these are expected to start soon after the U.S.-Taliban deal is announced. Thus the most vital concession that the United States’ lead negotiator, Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, has wrung from the Taliban is not the group’s well-publicized promise not to support terrorism; rather, it is the group’s agreement to at last negotiate with other Afghans, which for years it has refused to do until a timetable was in place for U.S. troops to withdraw. If, as reported, Khalilzad has negotiated a conditional timetable for withdrawal, the actual departure of U.S. troops would be contingent on the Taliban continuing these negotiations in good faith.

If the intra-Afghan talks that follow any U.S.-Afghan agreement succeed, stability is possible in Afghanistan and the U.S.-Taliban deal will have been a necessary precursor. If they fail, this initial deal’s virtues may be for naught. The most important phase in this peace process is just beginning.

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