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What short-term deal between U.S., Taliban means for chances of Afghan peace

A week-long “reduction in violence” between the U.S. and the Taliban represents a potential breakthrough for peace in Afghanistan. If it holds, the two sides will sign the first phase of a peace agreement that could pave the way to ending the 18-year-long war. Nick Schifrin reports and talks to New York University’s Barnett Rubin, a former State Department official in the Obama administration.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to our top story.

    The agreement announced today by the United States and the Taliban could put an end to the war that America has been fighting in Afghanistan for more than 18 years.

    Nick Schifrin joins us now with more details — Nick.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, the peace deal actually begins with a kind of test, a seven-day test to reduce violence.

    That's what was announced today. And if that succeeds, next Saturday in Doha, the U.S. and the Taliban will sign a peace deal designed to end the U.S.' war in Afghanistan.

    For more on this, we turn to Barnett Rubin. During the Obama administration, he was an adviser at the State Department, and helped design their plan to engage with the Taliban. He's now the associate director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University.

    Barney Rubin, thank you very much. Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    You have been involved in previous attempts, multiple previous attempts, to try to bring peace to the Taliban. How serious is this moment?

  • Barnett Rubin:

    This is the most serious attempt so far, because the U.S. and Taliban are actually going to sign an agreement which has a road map to a fuller agreement, including negotiations among Afghans.

    So this is the first time that I can say we're really starting a peace process.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, on the road to that peace process, on the road to the road map, there is what was announced today, officially a one-week reduction in violence.

    This requires the Taliban to reduce violence. Do we know if the Taliban are serious about reducing violence all across the country?

  • Barnett Rubin:

    It requires both sides to reduce violence, actually.

    And, apparently, they are serious about it. But we will see and test their — both their compliance and their ability to enforce such a measure over all of their fighters throughout the country.

    But they negotiated over this long and hard over the specific terms. It's actually — it's not just an agreement to reduce violence. It's a — I understand there is a fairly complex technical agreement that was worked out by military experts on both sides.

    And that implies that they are committed to it. But we will see if they're capable of carrying it out.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And the complexity is in part because there might be other violence in the country not created or not sparked by the Taliban, and the U.S. and Taliban have created a kind of communications channel so that the U.S. can check if any of the violence is the Taliban's, as opposed to ISIS, for example.

    Do you believe that channel will work? And how serious could spoilers be, people coming in and trying to spoil this seven days of reduced violence?

  • Barnett Rubin:

    Well, I'm not really aware of how that channel will work.

    But I think both sides have an interest in making it work. As you mentioned, the Islamic State is active in Afghanistan as well, and they're not included in this. And they are opposed by the United States, the Afghanistan government and the Taliban.

    And, of course, there are a variety of armed criminal groups and so on. Plus, the reduction in violence, it's not a full cease-fire. It doesn't — it covers attacks on large units, but it doesn't cover every small skirmish that might take place. I doubt that the Taliban would be able to control all of those.

    So, really, it will require some — there certainly will be some incidents of violence. We will have to make a political judgment whether the Taliban has made a good-faith effort to comply and whether they're capable of doing so.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And the political judgment, of course, will be both from the Americans and the Afghans.

    And if it succeeds over the next week, we are expecting a peace deal to be signed by the United States and the Taliban. The first priority for the U.S. has always been renouncing terrorism. There have been relationships between the Taliban and al-Qaida in the past.

    Do you believe the Taliban are serious about ensuring that al-Qaida can have no safe haven in Afghanistan?

  • Barnett Rubin:

    I think that they're serious about assuring that al-Qaida will not be able to attack any other country from Afghanistan.

    I think it's a little bit more ambiguous as to whether they will allow some al-Qaida people to stay there. But the Taliban know that if al-Qaida is active in Afghanistan, while they are sharing power or in power — or sharing power as part of a political settlement — then the country will once again become an international pariah, it will not receive the aid that it needs as the poorest country in Asia and one of the poorest countries in the world.

    To take — to gain power in Afghanistan without foreign assistance is only almost worthless because of the poverty of the country.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The next step in this peace deal is talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Tentatively is scheduled for Oslo, perhaps March 10.

    One of the steps is the Afghan government needing to release Taliban prisoners. Could that issue derail those inter-Afghanistan talks before they even begin?

  • Barnett Rubin:

    It could certainly delay them, because the U.S. negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, agreed to release of those prisoners, which the U.S. doesn't control, in discussions with the Taliban.

    And that means the Afghan government now has considerable leverage to extract some further concessions, which it would be crazy not to use. So, I would actually expect that there will be some delays, in addition to which it simply is not logistically possible to process the release of 5,000 prisoners in 10 days.

    So, at most, the process we will get started. But I think the African government will probably make certain demands before it carries out its part of that agreement.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Barney Rubin, I have only got 30 seconds left.

    Quick last question. President Ghani declared victory. His main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, said that he actually won and that he created his own government.

    Is there an Afghan government enough organized — organized enough to actually lead these talks?

  • Barnett Rubin:

    The talks will be led on the non-Taliban side by a delegation representing all the political forces that support the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, government and nongovernmental.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    All right, Barney Rubin, we will have to leave it there.

    Thank you very much, Barney Rubin, longtime Afghan watcher from New York. Thank you.

  • Barnett Rubin:

    Thank you, Nick.

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