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U.S. and Taliban peace talks make progress toward ending war in Afghanistan

The draft framework of an Afghan peace deal: If the Taliban agree to a cease-fire, working directly with the Afghan government and preventing terror groups from using Afghanistan as a base for planning attacks, U.S. forces will withdraw. John Yang talks to the International Crisis Group’s Laurel Miller and the Center on International Cooperation’s Barnett Rubin about this "complicated" process.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The war in Afghanistan has dragged on for 17 years. Previous attempts to end the fighting through diplomacy have failed.

    But, over the past week, high-level officials from the United States and the Taliban have been meeting in Doha.

    As John Yang reports, they have made significant progress in hammering out an agreement to start the process of ending the war.

  • John Yang:

    The possible breakthrough comes amid escalating Taliban attacks. The chief U.S. negotiator, Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, tells The New York Times that the militants have agreed in principle to a draft framework of a deal.

    The Taliban agreed it would prevent groups like al-Qaida from using Afghan territory to plan attacks. In return, the U.S.-led military coalition would withdraw from Afghanistan.

    In November, Khalilzad spoke to the "NewsHour"'s Nick Schifrin:

  • Zalmay Khalilzad:

    But we want a peace that is worthy of the sacrifices that have been made for the past 17 years, meaning especially that Afghanistan doesn't become a platform for international terrorists against the United States.

  • John Yang:

    The U.S. envoy also says the Taliban must agree to a cease-fire, and to deal directly with the Afghan government, something it has refused to do.

    On Sunday, Khalilzad briefed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on the talks. Today, Ghani said a final agreement must protect the rights of Afghans.

  • Ashraf Ghani:

    Our commitment is to provide peace and to prevent any possible disaster, but there are values that are not disputable, such as national unity, national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and a strong central government.

  • John Yang:

    In Washington, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan hailed the tentative framework.

  • Patrick Shanahan:

    The takeaway right now, it's encouraging.

  • John Yang:

    He also said he has not been asked to prepare a plan to withdraw the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. President

    Trump has often expressed frustration with the long-running Afghan war and the on-again/off-again talks to end it.

  • Donald Trump:

    Why are we there? We're 6,000 miles away.

  • John Yang:

    Lately, Taliban attacks have intensified, in a bid to gain leverage in the talks. The violence has delayed this year's Afghan presidential election from April to July. Ghani is running for a second five-year term.

    To discuss the realities surrounding this agreement, we are joined by Laurel Miller, who was President Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. She's now the International Crisis Group's Asia Group director. And Barnett Rubin, director of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Program at the Center on International Cooperation, he too served in the Obama administration's State Department and was one of the originators of their plan to start talks with the Taliban.

    Welcome to you both.

    Laurel, let me start with you.

    Help us understand the significance of this draft framework agreement. Is this the beginning of the end of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan?

  • Laurel Miller:

    It could be the beginning of the end of the American war in Afghanistan.

    Whether it's the beginning of the end of the war in Afghanistan, I think, remains to be seen and depends on the details that are to follow. But, nonetheless, the results of the talks of recent days are significant in several respects.

    First of all, it's the clearest sign yet of the U.S. intent to withdraw forces from Afghanistan. Secondly, this is the first time that the U.S. has been willing to be seen openly and publicly as negotiating face-to-face with the Taliban and putting the question of the American troop presence front and center.

    It's also, I think, significant, in that showing the possibility of achieving some progress, of actually having a negotiating process, may have brought Ambassador Khalilzad some time from a very impatient Washington.

    But there's a lot that remains to be seen on whether this really leads to a sustained peace process.

  • John Yang:

    Barnett Rubin, let me ask you about that, the next step.

    We have talked about what has been agreed to. But what hasn't been agreed to is that next step, the cease-fire, Taliban — the Taliban dealing directly with the Afghan government. How difficult are those next steps?

  • Barnett Rubin:

    Well, first, just to clarify, none of those things will be fully agreed until they are all fully agreed.

    That is, even when the U.S. and Taliban reach an agreement in principle on the framework for the U.S. withdrawal and for counterterrorism measures, that — its implementation will still be conditional on the cease-fire and an agreement on a political resolution.

    Now, the Taliban have refused to talk to the Afghan government thus far, but they have always said that they will talk to other Afghans, though without recognizing the government as such, once there's a plan in place for withdrawal of U.S. troops.

    And, similarly, I think they have agreed in principle on a cease-fire. The question is about the timing. As they say, they claim they're fighting about — against the U.S. what they call occupation. They're reluctant to agree to a cease-fire until they see movement on that.

    So I think there's some complicated issues about sequencing and coordination. And then the political settlement inside Afghanistan, of course, could be challenging. That will involve not just the Taliban and the Afghan government, but a broad cross-section of Afghan population, including women, civil society, all the various ethnic groups and so on.

    And it's yet to be determined how that will be structured.

  • John Yang:

    And, Laurel Miller, he brought up sort of the political settlement inside Afghanistan.

    Someone not at the table in these talks has been the Afghan government. Their voice is yet to be heard. What do you think? What's the complication there? What do you — how complicated will that be once they start to talk? And what do they want?

  • Laurel Miller:

    Mm-hmm.

    I mean, the first complication, which Barney alluded to, is, what's the format for this process, and how is it sequenced with other steps in a process? And there's still a lot to sort out on that question.

    But when it comes to the actual substance of what a deal is, one of the challenges in identifying where this is really going to go is that none of the sides in the conflict have really articulated what their vision is of a future Afghanistan, a vision that could win the support of a broad range of Afghans.

    There are vague indications on the Taliban side of what they're looking for, an Islamic form of government, a new constitution perhaps, but they have not articulated a fully-fledged vision of the political future of Afghanistan.

    And, similarly, on the Afghan government side, they have so far maintained adherence to what they have now, and wanting to keep what they have now. They haven't articulated a set of compromises that they might offer.

  • John Yang:

    Barney Rubin, also, to get here, it seems like it's been the United States that's made the concessions, or that's moved toward the Taliban, agreeing to talk to them face to face, willing to talk clearly about troop withdrawal.

    Has the Taliban made any movement toward the United States, toward the Afghan government?

  • Barnett Rubin:

    Well, certainly, if they — if, as reported, they have agreed to a kind of monitoring regime to guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a terrorist base, that certainly is the main demand that the United States has had from the beginning.

    In the next stage, when they start to talk to the Afghan government and other parts of the Afghan political spectrum, we will see to what extent they will move. But their — their public positions have moved. I can't — we can't always trust it. They have said they don't want a monopoly of power.

    They have never said that they want to reestablish the Islamic emirate. Their positions on women and education have changed from what they were doing when they were in power.

    But, as I said, we can't take all those things at face value. We will have to see what actually happens when they sit down with other Afghans.

  • John Yang:

    And not only is the Afghan government, Laurel Miller, not at the table. Another key player in the region, Pakistan, is not at the table.

    How — what role will they play in an eventual settlement or in trying to reach an eventual settlement?

  • Laurel Miller:

    Well, Pakistani influence, I think, you could say, was indirectly at the table.

    And there were even reports of Pakistani officials being present in Doha. Look, I mean, Pakistan also is another one of the actors in this overall picture that has not articulated what its vision is of a future Afghanistan.

    I think we can be pretty clear on some of the basics of what they want. They want an Afghanistan that is not hospitable to Indian influences and that is relatively hospitable to its own influence. Presumably, having the Taliban be mainstreamed into politics and be part of the political fabric of Afghanistan is a way for them to achieve their — that objective, at least minimally.

    Whether there's more that they will want remains to be seen. But they so far, in these recent talks in particular, seem to be trying to play a positive role, at least in encouraging the process to move forward.

  • John Yang:

    Barney Rubin, with all this uncertainty and complications ahead, are you optimistic or pessimistic about this?

  • Barnett Rubin:

    Well, my short answer to that is no, because attitudes don't really help. I try to do analysis.

    I have been through this, ups and downs, for 35 years. But this is, I would think, the most — I would say the most significant peace process that we have managed to see get started. There are many other bumps in the road ahead.

    In particular, remember, Afghanistan is dependent on aid. And whatever Afghans may be able to agree on won't mean very much if the international community is not willing to fund it. So we need an international framework for this agreement as well. And we have hardly begun to talk about that.

    But this is potentially a good beginning.

  • John Yang:

    Barney Rubin at the Center on International Cooperation, Laurel Miller of the International Crisis Group, thank you very much to both of you.

  • Laurel Miller:

    Thank you.

  • Barnett Rubin:

    Thank you.

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