To his credit, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has made remarkable progress in recent peace talks with the Taliban. It appears the latter group has now renounced any willingness to tolerate extremists from ISIS or Al Qaeda on Afghan territory under any future government in which it may have a key role. The United States has correspondingly indicated a willingness to downsize its military presence over time, and perhaps ultimately end it altogether, when conditions are right. We hope credible assurances on human rights are addressed, too.
But as Ambassador Khalilzad has himself underscored, there is no deal on anything until everything is agreed—and right now, we are still closer to the starting line than the finish line in negotiations to end this interminable conflict. As we approach the eighteen-year mark, it is already America’s longest war; for Afghans, it arguably dates back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan forty years ago. But even if Afghans, Americans, and other NATO/foreign forces are tired of fighting, reaching compromise will be excruciatingly hard. The government of Afghanistan has not even been brought into the peace talks yet, because the Taliban refuse even to properly recognize President Ashraf Ghani, whom they see as a U.S.-installed puppet, or even the Afghan constitution, which they also see as American-imposed. Until negotiations occur Taliban and Ghani, it is hard to get too enthused about the prospects for peace.
If and when such talks do begin, a crucial element will be security—and the future of the nation’s security forces. Indeed, this may be the single hardest and most central issue of all to a durable peace. It is not credulous to believe that either Ghani’s government or the Taliban would trust each other fully even if a peace deal could be written and signed. Both would have to expect ruses and betrayal by the other. Thus, any deal would need to go beyond Ronald Reagan’s famous “trust, but verify” mantra, and be based on the logic of “trust, but verify, and watch your back.” A peace deal would have to allow some elements of protection for key leaders and partisans on both sides of the fight. That in turn requires a realistic way to preserve the military capabilities of the two sides for a time, rather than naively believing they can somehow meld together seamlessly and safely.
Read the full article in The National Interest.