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As U.S., Taliban prepare to sign deal, Afghanistan nurtures hope for peace

On Saturday, the U.S. and the Taliban will sign a provisional peace deal after nearly 20 years of war in Afghanistan. The milestone agreement comes after a largely successful reduction in violence over the past week. But even as hope surrounds the Qatar meeting at which representatives will formalize the agreement, questions remain about Afghan political unity. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In early October 2001, the first U.S. military personnel set foot in Afghanistan.

    Today, there are U.S. soldiers deployed to Afghanistan who were not born in October 2001. Tomorrow, in Qatar, the United States will sign an agreement with the Taliban, whose government the U.S. deposed more than 18 years ago, and begin a process that may end America's longest war.

    Nick Schifrin is back with this look at the details and the stakes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Along the banks of the Kabul River today, after decades of war, there is a rare and precious commodity available in the market: hope.

  • Burhanuddin Sirat (through translator):

    We are happy and hopeful that the killing of the Afghans will end. Mothers will no longer lose their children, and, God willing, a lasting peace agreement will be signed, and Afghans will start a comfortable life.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For seven days, Kabul has been quiet enough for the U.S. and Afghan top military officials to take a stroll. General Scott Miller and acting Defense Minister Asadullah Khalid say they have held their fire, and the Taliban have proven a willingness and ability to significantly reduce violence.

  • Scott Miller:

    We're seeing what we would call a downward trend in violence, which is great for the Afghan people. It's great for the country of Afghanistan.

  • Asadullah Khalid (through translator):

    The sacrifices of our hardworking Afghan forces and patience of our great nation caused this reduction in violence. We hope, inshallah, this results in a cease-fire and enduring peace.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Now that the reduction in violence week has succeeded, tomorrow, in Doha, lead U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad is expected to sign a peace deal with lead Taliban negotiator Mullah Beradar.

    The top U.S. priority is the peace deal's first item, Taliban repudiation of al-Qaida and ISIS.

  • Scott Worden:

    It contains provisions for the Taliban to renounce support of al-Qaida in varying ways, no training areas, no funding, no — certainly no organization to plan any kind of attacks.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Scott Worden directs the U.S. Institute of Peace's Afghanistan and Central Asia Program. He says progress on the Taliban renouncing terrorists will lead to a staged U.S. withdrawal.

  • Scott Worden:

    It's conditional on whether the Taliban uphold their agreements, particularly with regard to the links that they have to terrorism, which they are severing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The biggest challenge may be item number three, direct negotiations between the Taliban and a split Afghan government.

    Ashraf Ghani has celebrated his reelection as president. But his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, says he is president, and rejected recently announced results of last year's election.

  • Scott Worden:

    There needs to be some degree of political stability and security in Afghanistan, or else the safe havens will come back. And so, while this is talking about U.S. troop withdrawal and Taliban counterterrorism guarantees, none of that will be worth very much over time if there's not a political resolution.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Direct Taliban-Afghan government talks are scheduled to begin March the 10th, likely in Oslo, but the Afghan government hasn't yet agreed on a promised prisoner release or its negotiating team.

    Ghani wants his team. The U.S. wants a more inclusive group.

  • Scott Worden:

    There are definitely significant divisions among the political groups within Afghanistan, and the degree of unity there is at the talks translates to the degree of strength and leverage that the Afghan government's side will have against the Taliban's vision of a future Afghanistan.

    So, a lack of unity is an impediment to quick or successful negotiations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the Taliban have never renounced their desire to dominate the country. Since 2001, when the U.S. overthrew a Taliban government, Afghanistan has transformed.

    Women are educated. There are modern communications. And Afghans advocate for a direct say in who governs them.

    Human rights advocate Shukria Jalalzai fears progress is delicate.

  • Shukria Jalalzai (through translator):

    Right now, women's concerns are considered seriously, and their voices are heard. The question is, when the Taliban comes to the country, would they accept women in the same way or not?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But for the U.S., this is the most serious effort to end the war. Military and diplomatic officials are united that there's no military solution, and President Trump is uninterested in keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan if they're mostly advising Afghans.

  • President Donald Trump:

    They have to police their own country. I can tell you, after 19 years, we'd like to bring our young people back home.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so the U.S. hopes that tomorrow will be the beginning of the end of the longest war that long ago became a grinding and bloody stalemate.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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