After 17 years and the deaths of more than 2,400 American troops, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan might finally be coming to a close — not with a decisive victory over the Taliban but with a negotiated settlement that could give the Islamist insurgents a role in governing the country again. Still, depending on the details, that could be preferable to continued, open-ended conflict with no guarantee of success.
Although nothing has been finally agreed, U.S. and Taliban representatives meeting in Qatar have discussed a “framework” in which U.S. troops in Afghanistan, now numbering about 14,000, would leave the country along with other foreign forces. In exchange, the Taliban would offer assurances that Afghanistan wouldn’t be used as a launching ground for attacks against foreign countries. Those terms might be the beginning, not the end, of a settlement that would also include new political arrangements in Afghanistan.
It was the Taliban-controlled government’s sheltering of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda that led President George W. Bush to order U.S. troops into Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks after first giving the Taliban the opportunity to “deliver to United States authorities all the leaders of Al Qaeda who hide in your land.” So there is a necessary symmetry to a demand by the U.S. that the Taliban agree not to harbor terrorists in the future as the price of its rehabilitation in a peace agreement.
But while the original rationale for the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan was to stop that country from serving as a staging ground for international terrorists, the toppling of the Taliban also led to the merciful end of a puritanical government that for five years had oppressed and marginalized women. A constitution adopted in 2004 restored a measure of civic equality for women, and the Afghan government has promoted equality for women through a National Action Plan for Women of Afghanistan and a Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
According to a December 2017 report by the Congressional Research Service, Afghan women are performing jobs that were rarely held by women even before the Taliban came to power in 1996. The civil service, for example, is 22% female and there are more than 260 female judges, up from 50 in 2003. These gains are also a legacy of U.S. intervention. It’s troubling to think that they could be rolled back if the Taliban regained even a partial share of the political power it once exercised.
That is why it is important that the U.S., even as it negotiates directly with the Taliban, also press that group to deal with the Afghan government headed by President Ashraf Ghani, which the Taliban in the past has dismissed as an American puppet. To his credit, Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration’s chief negotiator, said that any deal with the Taliban “must include an intra-Afghan dialogue” and a comprehensive cease-fire. Khalilzad needs to bargain hard to convince the Taliban that it must negotiate in good faith not only with the U.S. but also with its fellow Afghans.
The Taliban may have reasons of its own to do so. At least some in its leadership may prefer peace and a role in a power-sharing arrangement over continued conflict and the presence of foreign troops. The U.S. could play a part by making clear that, while it is eager to withdraw its remaining military forces, it would be willing to provide economic assistance to Afghanistan in the event of a peace agreement.
Hopeful as the talks in Qatar may be, much remains to be done before diplomacy can be said to have triumphed. A successful agreement to end the fighting in Afghanistan will probably require the participation of Pakistan, which in the past has been criticized for sheltering Afghan militants but lately seems to be supportive of a peace process. President Trump may need to control his impatience for a deal and allow his negotiators more time to use the possibility of troop withdrawal as leverage in negotiations. The Afghan government needs to accept that sharing power with some elements of the Taliban is the price of peace, just as the Taliban may need to purge some of its extremist elements.