Taliban talks must provide more than a route to an abrupt US withdrawal from Afghanistan

The future of the nation is at stake and the knock-on effects of a hurried US exit would be colossal – both for Afghans and the wider world

FILE PHOTO: A member of the Taliban holds a flag in Kabul, Afghanistan June 16, 2018. The writing on the flag reads: 'There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of Allah'. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/File Photo
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Over the past two months, the Taliban have done a great deal of talking. They were in Moscow in May, in Beijing in June, and have met German representatives in Kabul.

The most important of these meetings will begin this weekend, when the US and the Taliban sit down in Qatar for the seventh round of discussions.

Since October last year, the Taliban and the US have sat down regularly, seeking a way to end the conflict and remove America's 14,000 troops from the country, while safeguarding the Afghan government, which is dependent on US protection.

This time the US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad said he hoped for “rapid” progress. But progress towards what?

On the face of it, the two sides are at a military and political stalemate – and, in some, ways the Taliban hold an advantage. The May talks ended in deadlock, with the Taliban still refusing to speak to the Afghan government.

Although Mr Trump has emphasised the possibility of bringing US troops home, nobody in power nor in proximity to it expects this to happen soon.

When the New York Times quizzed the nearly two dozen Democrat presidential candidates on the topic, just two believed there would be a full exit of US troops before 2024. America's longest war is in no danger of being cut short.

If US involvement has exhausted the nation’s military, it has exhausted Afghans even more. Tens of thousands have died in the conflict; millions more have grown up knowing nothing but war. The population is overwhelmingly young; around half were not even born when the first US bombs dropped at the end of 2001. They have known nothing but dispossession, fighting and insecurity.

What, then, can the latest talks really achieve? With such pressure on the US to finally draw down, is there not a strong chance that its troops will simply and suddenly leave?

The main problem for everyone involved in Afghanistan is time. It is on no one's side but the Taliban's.

The longer the talks go on for, the longer the fighting rages, the better they do. Recall that the Taliban now controls more territory than at the height of their strength in 2001.

In such circumstances, it is not in the Taliban’s interest to pursue a peace deal. The pressure on the US to withdraw is greater than the pressure on them to disarm.

Moreover, with Mr Trump's impatience well known – and against the backdrop of the decision to bring troops back from Syria – the Taliban must be reasoning that there is every chance of a sudden US withdrawal, swiftly followed by the inevitable toppling of the Kabul government.

There is every chance, therefore, that the Taliban will simply drag the talks out. But even if they don't, is there a power-sharing deal to be done?

Ask the question a different way and it becomes clear how big the task is. Is there a plausible outcome that allows the US to withdraw its troops, while also ending Taliban attacks and keeping the Afghan government in power? Put like that, it seems clear that only two out of those three goals are currently achievable.

The Afghan government cannot stay in power without the US; the Taliban will not cease their attacks until US troops leave; yet neither the Taliban nor the US has the strength to overwhelm the other. Any deal must square that circle.

Given the military situation on the ground, there are only two realistic options, if the US withdraws: a Taliban government or a power-sharing agreement.

The first option is impossible to imagine, as much for many ordinary Afghans as it is for Washington. The brutality of the Taliban government of the 1990s was extensively documented, and many Afghans would prefer to leave or fight, rather than see them return to power. For Washington, too, the optics of fighting so long, haemorrhaging so much money and losing so many lives, only for the US's nemesis to outlast it and return to power would be too much to bear. It would certainly bolster the Taliban's standing among militant groups. Yet, without a peace deal, or with a too-hasty exit, that would be the outcome.

The US is now focused on the second option, slowly trying to convince the Taliban to accept talks alongside the Afghan government.

Any success would be small, but a realistic outcome would be one that committed the Taliban to some form of discussion with the current Afghan government or its successor.

What the US needs is to ensure that the security of the Afghan government is entwined with that of the Taliban – otherwise, any deal might simply fall apart once US troops leave.

There are small steps it could argue for to make that happen. One would be to integrate security in some parts of the country, bringing Taliban fighters into the regular army, in the way the Popular Mobilisation Forces have been in Iraq. Another, in advance of the Afghan presidential election in September, would be to get the Taliban to agree to the composition of any negotiating team from the Afghan government side, but leave the actual talks for a separate round.

Those seem to be small steps, but they are crucial for the next giant leap: talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. They will take time, perhaps years. And the only side that doesn't have years is the US, since the presidential next election is 16 months away.

That increases the risk that Mr Trump, impatient for a win, will simply order US troops out. That would be a mistake, and one that could become the defining error of his foreign policy. The repercussions of an abrupt exit would be enormous, for ordinary Afghans, for neighbouring countries, and the wider world.

Without US troops on the ground, or a peace deal in place, Afghanistan's problems would not stay within Afghanistan's borders. Talking to the Taliban may take time, but it cannot simply be a way to end a bloody chapter, whatever the cost.