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Can Afghanistan-Taliban talks end America’s longest war?

The United States will soon enter its 20th year of fighting in Afghanistan. Nearly 3,600 American troops have died there, as well as hundreds of thousands of Afghans. But Afghanistan was at war decades before the U.S. invaded after 9/11. Can newly begun talks between the country’s government and Taliban insurgents, brokered by the U.S., finally usher in an era of peace? Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In a few weeks' time, the U.S. will enter the 20th year of war in Afghanistan, when the U.S. invaded after 9/11. Nearly 3,600 American troops have since died there, and hundreds of thousands of Afghans.

    But for the preceding 20 years, Afghans had also been at war with the Soviets and then themselves. Now, in the capital of Qatar, the first talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents have begun, midwifed by the U.S., and, with them, the first flickers of hope for an end to war.

    Here's Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Every war must end. And if the Afghan war ends soon, the beginning of the end will be this conference room, on one side, Afghanistan's democratically elected government, on the other, leaders of the violent insurgency the Taliban. Both expressed hope.

  • Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (through translator):

    Negotiations may have problems, but we hope that the discussions should move forward with patience.

  • Abdullah Abdullah (through translator):

    My delegation and I have come to Doha to figure out a process to close the gates of war and pain forever.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Last weekend's relatively warm words were a good sign for two sides who've been fighting to determine Afghanistan's future for two decades.

  • Laurel Miller:

    The fundamental question on the table for negotiation is, what is the Afghan state going to look like?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Laurel Miller is the International Crisis Group's senior director for Asia. She says, before that core question can be answered, the two sides have to negotiate how they will negotiate.

  • Laurel Miller:

    What the rules and procedures, so to speak, will be for the process. The next step will be to agree on what the agenda will be.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Afghan government wants the agenda to begin with a cease-fire. The government says 1,200 people have been killed and 15,000 wounded in just the last six months.

  • Nader Nadery:

    A cease-fire, an immediate cease-fire, silencing the guns is what our people want.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Nader Nadery is a member of the government's negotiation team and a senior adviser to the Afghan president. He spoke to us from Doha.

  • Nader Nadery:

    Afghans across this country deserve to be heard, and they actually deserve a peaceful life, free of violence.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But violence is the Taliban's leverage, and the Taliban won't agree to a cease-fire before agreeing on a new government that includes them, spokesman Mohammad Naeem told Afghanistan's TOLOnews.

  • Mohammad Naeem (through translator):

    It does not make sense to end 20 years of war in one hour. From our perspective, it would be logical to discuss the main aspects of the problems, and then finalize a cease-fire, so the problem is resolved permanently.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But what kind of government does the Taliban want? In the '90s, they ruled Afghanistan, claiming their version of Islamic law with austerity, brutality and subjugation of women and minorities.

    Today, Afghanistan's Parliament has a higher percentage of women than the U.S. Congress, and more than three million girls are in school. The Taliban recently suggested they could allow female education and politicians, but no female chief justice or president.

  • Nader Nadery:

    That's not acceptable to Afghan women at all, to Afghans in general. It's not acceptable to me for my daughters

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Washington, there's bipartisan worry the talks will erode human rights.

    Just yesterday, Foreign Affairs Committee leaders Democrat Eliot Engel and Republican Mike McCaul wrote a letter urging any deal to prioritize women's empowerment. But the administration has made clear its priority is withdrawal.

  • President Donald Trump:

    It's time, after all these years, to go and to bring our people back home.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. is reducing forces to 4,500 by November, and has agreed to withdraw all U.S. service members by next April if the Taliban doesn't harbor al-Qaida and continues negotiations.

    Critics have called that deal a rush to the exits that weakened a fragile Afghan government. The government had to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, some responsible for horrific attacks against Afghans and the deaths of U.S. troops.

  • Zalmay Khalilzad:

    We're not happy about that, and — but, sometimes, you have to make the hard decision.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The lead American negotiator has been Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. He's suggested the U.S. wants negotiators to achieve quick progress by adopting a road map.

    The Afghan government worries that road map might force it to create a weak interim government without them.

  • Laurel Miller:

    You can agree on a set of principles for governance that are your building blocks for that future agreement. But that's different than, say, to simply hand away power to some kind of interim government with a very minimalist road map agreement. Road map to where? Unknown.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Afghans are concerned President Trump will push for a hasty deal before Election Day.

  • Nader Nadery:

    We need to have patience and therefore to carefully proceed through it, to not follow certain short timelines and deadlines.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But after the U.S.' longest war reached its 20th year, the military, the administration, and the U.S. public support a deal, even if it means some Taliban control.

  • Laurel Miller:

    What it would mean is the most explicit acknowledgment yet that the U.S. did not win the war in Afghanistan. The Taliban was sufficiently successful to compel the U.S. to make significant concessions to that group.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This week, Afghans remembered their family members killed by the Taliban.

    Mah Jan lost her son.

  • Woman:

    I can only forgive if I witness lasting peace.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In a land that has known little peace or forgiveness, there is desperate hope for both.

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

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