DOHA, Qatar — After months of negotiations between the United States and the Taliban, both sides have signaled that they are nearing an initial peace deal for Afghanistan, perhaps in the coming weeks or even sooner, even though the recent talks have seemed bogged down in the final details.
Even a provisional agreement would be momentous, marking the beginning of the end to the United States’ longest war. The conflict has stretched for nearly 18 years, taking the lives of tens of thousands of Afghans and more than 3,500 American and coalition forces, and costing hundreds of billions of dollars.
President Trump’s desire to end what he has described as an endless war has been abundantly clear, and it is likely that if there is a breakthrough to announce, in an election season, he will be the person to do it.
Whether the withdrawal of foreign troops will actually bring peace and stability to a devastated Afghanistan depends largely on whether it is contingent on the Taliban and Afghan officials making progress toward a separate political agreement. Otherwise, critics fear, the United States and the Taliban will merely be signing an agreement on withdrawal, not peace.
The eighth round of talks finished early Monday after days of discussion that often went past midnight. Both sides have gone back to their leadership to consult on next steps, but in the meantime they are saying little about the details being worked out. Drawn from weeks of reporting at the venue of the talks in Doha, Qatar, as well as in Washington and Kabul, the Afghan capital, here is a look at the most likely facets of a deal.
Timetable for withdrawing troops
At the peak of the war, there were more than 100,000 American and tens of thousands of allied troops in Afghanistan. With a consensus emerging that neither side can win the war militarily, those numbers have now dropped to about 14,000 American troops and several thousand from NATO allies.
As a cornerstone to any political settlement to the conflict, the Taliban have long demanded a complete withdrawal of foreign troops — ending “the occupation” that they see as the main reason for the war.
One crucial and divisive facet of the negotiations is how a withdrawal would play out. The Taliban have demanded that all foreign troops leave within months. American negotiators have brought military experts to the table to explain how ending a military presence of 18 years — closing bases, shipping equipment home — is logistically impossible in that short a window.
As a compromise, the most likely timeline for the withdrawal of troops would be about two years or a little less, and would take place in phases. Noncombat support staff, including trainers and advisers to Afghan forces, could leave in earlier batches, with the more lethal Special Operations forces and the technical teams necessary for coordinating air power leaving later.
Keeping Afghan territory from aiding terrorist attacks
American officials have insisted on assurances that the Taliban will not support international and regional terrorist groups like Al Qaeda — an alliance that precipitated the 2001 invasion after the Sept. 11 attacks.
As well, the officials have asked for active cooperation from the Taliban in keeping Afghan territory from being used to plot or stage any international terrorist attacks. But details of just how such a promise — from a group that the United States secretary of state recently described as “Taliban terrorists” — could be enforced are not clear. Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief American negotiator, has suggested that some of those details are among the “steps and mechanisms” that are being worked out in the last stretch of the talks.
Direct talks between the Taliban and Afghan officials
The announcement of a timetable for troop withdrawal would unlock what analysts and officials believe could be the most difficult part of the peace process yet: the opening of talks between the Taliban and other Afghans, including the country’s government, over the political future of the country and how power will be shared.
Preparations are underway for those talks in Oslo and the Afghan government has said it has finalized a list of 15 negotiators, including government officials as well as representatives from political parties and civil society groups.
Those negotiations will be difficult and could take months, if not years, because they will be seeking a compromise between two clashing views of governance. One side is a democratically rooted republic, the other ruled as an emirate led by a religiously credentialed supreme leader. Such talks would also test the political discipline of each side — both have long lists of grievances against the other, as well as internal constituencies that are wary of any peace process at all.
The drawn-out nature of the talks between the Taliban and Afghan officials means it is important that the timetable for foreign troop withdrawal is conditioned on progress, so that the United States doesn’t lose its leverage before a political agreement is reached.
Localized truces, in hope of a sweeping cease-fire
People close to the talks say that the Taliban have so far been resistant to American demands for an immediate and comprehensive cease-fire as part of the initial agreement.
The insurgents’ logic is this: If they agree to a cease-fire initially and then the lengthy power-sharing part of the peace process hits a wall, they will struggle to remobilize their guerrilla forces and lose the only leverage they have, which is violence.
American officials say they have still insisted on an immediate reduction on violence. That kind of stepped-down agreement could take this shape: a cessation of violence in regions as Americans begin pulling out of them, so that a de facto cease-fire widens along with the progress of the withdrawal.
The shape of any lasting, formal cease-fire would most likely be one of the first items on the agenda in talks between Afghan officials and the Taliban, officials say.