Don’t Let the Taliban Dictate Terms
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Now that U.S. negotiators have reached a draft agreement with the Taliban, there’s new hope of bringing America’s longest war to a close. The challenge will be to end it without betraying America’s Afghan allies and reversing the progress that the country has made in recent years.
The discussions between U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban representatives are encouraging. Direct talks are the only way to end the fighting and, for the first time in 17 years, the U.S. is negotiating with one of the most powerful Taliban leaders. Under U.S. pressure, Pakistan, which has long enabled the Taliban insurgency, seems to be helping. And the core of the framework agreement — a phased withdrawal of foreign troops in exchange for a pledge by the Taliban to cut ties to global terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda — addresses each side’s central demand. Khalilzad says the Taliban have agreed to a way to enforce that promise, the details of which will be crucial.
Equally crucial, though, is Khalilzad’s insistence that the Taliban agree to a cease-fire and to direct negotiations with the Afghan government (which the insurgents have refused up to now) before any troops are pulled out. It’s unsatisfactory, to put it mildly, to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate negotiating partner while excluding the country’s lawful government from the talks. At some point, the process will also need to include provincial power players and representatives of civil society, whose support will be needed to implement any deal.
If U.S. troops leave before a comprehensive and widely supported deal is concluded, its NATO partners would quit as well, and funding for the Afghan government and military would almost certainly decline. Kabul’s hold on outlying provinces would weaken even further. Police and Afghan army troops might defect to ethnic militias. Even if the Taliban didn’t sweep into power again, the country could well return to the warlordism and chaos that preceded the group’s rise in the 1990s. The enormous gains made on women’s rights and other basic liberties — gains for which thousands of Afghans have died — would be at risk.
This next stage of talks will be difficult — and most likely far too slow for those, including President Trump, eager for U.S. troops to return home. But there are no shortcuts. Afghans themselves must decide how to integrate the Taliban into the existing political system, and whether to postpone elections currently scheduled for July. All this will take time. If the U.S. is impatient, the Taliban’s hand will be strengthened.
Meanwhile, Khalilzad is right to confer with NATO allies and Afghanistan’s neighbors. Behind the scenes, he particularly needs to work with China to keep the pressure on Pakistan, whose support is vital. Islamabad has never said what it wants in Afghanistan; that needs to be clarified so that its longtime role as a spoiler in the country’s politics can come to an end.
What of the Taliban as prospective partners in government? In public, at least, the group’s leaders have moderated their views on women’s education and other matters in recent years, perhaps because they have come to see international isolation as a drawback. It’s right to be skeptical — but this is all the more reason to maintain pressure and avoid rushing to the exit. Now that a framework for a negotiated settlement and the withdrawal of U.S. forces has been adopted, the Taliban must say how they’ll respond to the country’s intense desire for peace, stability and development.
The U.S. deserves credit for its part in bringing peace closer. It should go no further until the Taliban take the next step.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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