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Latest Suicide Bombing Renews Concerns About Afghan Peace Talks

NOEL KING, HOST:

The United States wants to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, and it's been working on a deal with the Taliban to get that done. Here's what President Trump said yesterday about that deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're there for one reason - we don't want that to be a laboratory, OK? It can't be a laboratory for terror.

KING: Over the weekend, though, terrorists struck the capital Kabul. A suicide bombing on Saturday killed at least 63 people at a wedding. Now, the Taliban denied responsibility. Instead, an ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan says it was behind the bombing. So where do these talks stand right now? Retired U.S. Army Colonel Christopher Kolenda commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan in combat against the Taliban, and then he later participated in diplomatic talks with them. Colonel Kolenda, good morning.

CHRISTOPHER KOLENDA: Good morning, Noel. Thanks for having me.

KING: We're glad to have you. These talks are happening without the Afghan government. Can the U.S. really get anything done by just negotiating with the Taliban alone?

KOLENDA: Well, they can get a little bit done. And it's useful to kind of start with the big picture, where the war's, of course, in its 18th year. We're in a position in which the Taliban are not going to sort of have - be forced to surrender because they've got enough external sanctuary and local support inside of Afghanistan. At the same time, the Taliban are not going to be able to overthrow the Afghan government as long as the Afghan government has international support.

And you've got a situation where the Taliban recognizes the legitimacy of U.S. war aim, which is Afghanistan and President Trump's words, no longer being a laboratory or a platform for international terrorism, capable of striking the United States and its allies. And for its part, the United States recognizes what's the Taliban main war aim, which is ending what they call the occupation. And so when you're in this situation of the sides recognizing the legitimacy of each other's war aims, then peace talks are a natural thing.

KING: OK, so some room for optimism there. You've said, I know, that the president, President Trump, is really impatient to get this done, and that's causing problems. Why? How so?

KOLENDA: Well, any - right. Any negotiation in which one side has pressure of time and the other side does not, gives the side that is not under time pressure a huge advantage. And so the United States has been very vocal, and the president's been very vocal for many understandable reasons that he wants to get out of Afghanistan, to get out soon, perhaps even before the 2020 election. And so the Taliban read all of this, and they wonder whether - or they conclude that they can just simply play for time.

KING: I see. I see. So they can draw it out and keep it longer. Let me ask you a last question, though. The Taliban didn't claim responsibility for this large suicide bombing over the weekend; ISIS did. So let's say the Taliban does honor part of their agreement with the United States. Does that do anything to stop ISIS in Afghanistan? Just briefly.

KOLENDA: Well, yes and no. No in the sense that an agreement with the Taliban is not going to result in an agreement with the Islamic State (inaudible) Khorasan (ph). But at the same time, if you get a situation in which the Taliban, the Afghan government and other Afghan groups, Afghan parties, are all allied against Islamic State, then you can see - you know, that could put a lot of pressure on Islamic State and hopefully end their presence.

KING: Retired U.S. Army Colonel Christopher Kolenda led troops in Afghanistan. He's now with the Center for a New American Security. Joined us via Skype. Thank you, sir.

KOLENDA: Thank you very much for having me, Nicole (ph).

KING: NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre, he's been looking into these negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban. Good morning, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So what is the current status of these talks? Where do they stand?

MYRE: Well, we've had multiple rounds now, but we still don't have an agreement. And the key points here seem to be the Taliban wants a timeline for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops there. And we understand from people familiar with the talks, they're looking at a timeline that would be two years or even a little less for a full U.S. withdrawal.

Now, in turn, the U.S. wants the Taliban to agree to a permanent cease-fire, which the Taliban haven't done. And U.S. also wants the Taliban to agree that they will negotiate with the Afghan government after the U.S. reaches a deal with them, if that, in fact, happens.

KING: I mean, this is the really interesting thing, is that the Afghan government is being left out of these talks. So when the Afghan government looks at this and looks at the U.S. and the Taliban talking, what are they saying in response to all that?

MYRE: Well, they haven't liked this at all, and they're really becoming even more worried as a deal potentially becomes closer. I mean, they support sort of efforts towards peace, but they feel they're going to be left without any leverage. If the U.S. agrees to withdraw the troops and then they have to start talking to the Taliban, they're not going to have a lot of cards to play. I spoke with the Afghan ambassador Roya Rahmani, and here's what she had to say.

ROYA RAHMANI: Peace negotiations would start when the Taliban are able and ready to face the Afghan people, the people that they are fighting and their legitimate elected government.

MYRE: So they say that they have their own red lines. The Afghan government wants to make sure their political system stays in place, security issues and women's rights.

KING: Rahmani, in fact, is the first woman to be Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States. I would imagine women's rights - a very big concern for her.

MYRE: Yeah, she was a women's rights activist. And she talked about fleeing Afghanistan as a teenager, just before the Taliban came to power. But she went back in 1998, when the Taliban was in power, and here's how she describes that time.

RAHMANI: When they were controlling my country, shapes one of the worst memories of my life. I found my country drained of energy and, worse than that, drained of hope.

MYRE: So she fears this could happen again. And we know Afghanistan has largely fallen off the map here, but this long, long war is at a very pivotal moment.

KING: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, thanks so much.

MYRE: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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