Will a New Plan End the War in Afghanistan?

WASHINGTON — After 18 years of war, the United States is once again preparing to unveil a plan for peace in Afghanistan.

Months of dialogue between American diplomats and the Taliban have yielded a framework agreement that is expected to be announced in days. That agreement, in turn, seeks to smooth a path for direct talks between elected Afghan leaders and the Taliban — a significant but tenuous step for a government and its former oppressors.

Those negotiations will be rocky at best, and a final cease-fire could be months or even years away. Crucial obstacles remain, according to military and diplomatic officials, including whether American troops will stay in Afghanistan, how to protect women’s rights enshrined in the republic’s constitution and, importantly, if a future government could share power with the Taliban.

The framework will be announced as presidential elections approach, both in Afghanistan and in the United States, and as violence on both sides continues. The Taliban have kept up a steady march of attacks, but a United Nations report found that Afghan forces and their American allies were responsible for more civilian deaths than the extremists during the first six months of the year. The expected agreement will signal whether peace is even possible.

Here is a look at what we know — and what we don’t know — about the framework deal.

No. But it opens the way for the Taliban to start direct negotiations with Afghan government leaders. Before that could happen, American and Taliban officials wanted to settle on two areas at the heart of their concerns: How much longer the 14,000 United States troops that are in Afghanistan would remain, and whether that country could ever be used as a safe haven for terrorist groups.

Other demands raised during eight rounds of framework talks led by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the American envoy, will be addressed in the direct negotiations with Afghanistan’s elected officials.

No. Violence surged in July, the deadliest month in Afghanistan in years, according to the United Nations. An estimated 1,500 Afghan civilians were either killed or wounded last month; 14 people died this week in a truck bombing in Kabul.

Afghan government officials have called for a cease-fire during the negotiations, but the Taliban have refused. Officials have raised the possibility that violence will at least drop, as a trust-building measure, but Ambassador Roya Rahmani, the Afghan government’s chief envoy to the United States, said no level of attacks were acceptable. “I am hoping that when we say ‘cease-fire,’ it means we should prevent violence, in total,” she said.

In an interview on Friday, Ms. Rahmani expressed hope that talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, known as the intra-Afghan negotiations, would begin as soon as possible, and potentially before the country’s presidential elections are held on Sept. 28.

(The Taliban threatened this week to block the election, which it called a “sham,” and warned Afghans to stay away from campaign rallies and polls.)

But there are a number of sticking points. Perhaps the most significant discussions will center on whether — or how — the elected government in Kabul will share power with the Taliban, an extremist group. Earlier this year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to the “Taliban terrorists in Afghanistan.”

“After almost 20 years of hard fighting, I think there’s just too much bad blood between the two sides to ever seriously expect that to be papered over by a peace agreement,” said David W. Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general who led the war effort in Afghanistan for almost two years.

But the Taliban also wield power over more than 10 percent of Afghanistan’s population — 59 of the country’s 407 districts, according to the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Another 119 districts are considered contested.

The Taliban have demanded that all United States and other international military forces leave Afghanistan before there is a cease-fire. The framework agreement will clarify a continuing debate among American officials, pitting President Trump’s demand to end the war in Afghanistan against the military’s advice for some residual forces to remain.

American military officials in Kabul believe the Taliban are unable, and unwilling, to divorce themselves from Al Qaeda, a key requirement for the United States. The officials also believe Afghan government forces and Taliban fighters alike are incapable of defeating the Islamic State’s offshoot in the country.

“Any agreement must allow for the U.S. to intervene at will to strike A.Q. and I.S. targets,” said Mr. Barno, referring to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

The rift between the American military in Kabul and the intelligence officials is another point of contention over whether keeping even a modest number of troops in Afghanistan is worth the risk of scuttling the fragile peace negotiations.

That is unclear, but American officials have proposed keeping a task force of as many as 7,000 troops, based in Kabul, to feed intelligence and other information to Afghan soldiers across the country for several years. That could also include Special Operations forces who would be moved to Kabul after their base in Bagram is closed.

One of the more pressing issues to be resolved is what happens to Afghan national security forces if the Taliban are given power in the government. The United States has spent years and billions of dollars to train the Afghan forces.

Defense Department officials hope that a new government would request that American troops stay behind, and that the current Afghan military will not be disbanded. Ms. Rahmani said on Friday that the Afghan government wanted United States forces to remain only as long as needed to help the national troops ensure stability.

In a separate interview, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Asad M. Khan, also expressed hope that a “residual” force of American troops would remain in Afghanistan.

But given that the Taliban has demanded a total withdrawal of Western troops, the future of American forces in Afghanistan remains one of the most fundamental questions that the framework is expected to address. It’s unclear if — or how — Mr. Khalilzad will seek to strike compromise.

Ms. Rahmani, who stressed on Friday that she had not yet seen the framework agreement, acknowledged a trust deficit between the two sides that could not be glossed over in informal “ice-breaking” talks on the sidelines of the negotiations with the United States.

Among Afghan negotiators in Doha, Qatar, where the talks took place, “some of them felt there is a positive change; that there would be some hope in terms of finding a way to come to middle ground,” Ms. Rahmani said. “Some others felt that the Taliban has not really changed — they’re still of the same views as they held during the time they were in power in Afghanistan.”

Choosing her words carefully, Ms. Rahmani nonetheless signaled that the Afghan government remained skeptical of whether the framework agreement had any hope of paving the road to peace.

Trust “is also something that cannot be merely achieved on the basis of what they say, or even what they will put on paper,” she said. “Afghanistan has unfortunately has had many rounds of such negotiations over the last 40 years — that people came together but they did not manage to implement what they agreed.”

”It will be tested by the actions on the ground,” she said.

Mujib Mashal contributed reporting from Doha, Qatar.

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