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U.S.-Taliban Peace Talks May Be Edging Closer To A Deal

NOEL KING, HOST:

The U.S. and the Taliban appear to be moving closer to a peace agreement. The Taliban's political spokesman claims they will sign a deal by the end of this month. In the past few days, both sides agreed to a seven-day reduction in violence. And if a broader agreement is struck, U.S. troops will start withdrawing from Afghanistan. Carter Malkasian is in the studio with us. He was the senior adviser to General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Thanks for coming in.

CARTER MALKASIAN: Thank you.

KING: The U.S. and the Taliban have appeared to be on the verge of a long-term peace agreement for some time now. What makes this time different?

MALKASIAN: So I think this time, what's very different is some of the things we're hearing coming from our leaders and from the Taliban, as well - the fact that Secretary of State Pompeo has said that there's been a breakthrough, the fact that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has said we shall have a seven-day reduction in violence ahead of that. Those are very promising, in addition to a variety of things we've heard from various officials in the past. So I don't think we've been this close before to signing a deal between the United States and the Taliban that should lead to real discussions between the Afghan parties to reach a political settlement.

KING: You worked on the ground in Afghanistan for a long time. Based on what you have seen and what you are seeing, are conditions right there for U.S. forces to withdraw?

MALKASIAN: I think we should look at this as an opportunity and an opportunity to reach a better situation in Afghanistan. If we can have discussions with the Taliban - if the Taliban can meet with the Afghan people and with the Afghan government and they can reach a political settlement, this is the best solution to the conflict there. We've been trying to figure out what to do in Afghanistan for years. We've had a strategy that has left us in place there trying to prevent the government from falling and trying to make sure there's no terrorist threat to the United States. There isn't an easy victory here in Afghanistan. And we could find ourselves here for many, many years. This is a way out of that dilemma. This is a way that could allow us to withdraw our forces if the Taliban are willing to do certain things.

KING: OK. You mentioned that the Afghan government is not part of this deal - right? - between the U.S. and the Taliban. So how much of a problem is that?

MALKASIAN: Well, it's going to be a very big problem if the Taliban do not go on now to meet with the Afghan government. But forcing the Taliban, compelling the Taliban after they signed a deal with the United States to then meet with the Afghan government and other elements of Afghan society has been a critical component of this negotiation. The whole reason that Ambassador Khalilzad and the United States as a whole embarked on negotiations bilaterally with the Taliban was so that they would go on to meet with the Afghan government. The idea has never been that we are going to sign agreement with the Taliban, and we are simply going to leave.

That agreement is conditional, and it's conditioned upon several things. It's conditioned upon the Taliban meeting counterterrorism guarantees - in other words, making sure that they're not going to continue - guaranteeing they will not continue to help or work with al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations and not let them do anything against the United States. Another thing it's conditioned upon is, again, then meeting with the Afghan government and other elements of Afghan society to reach a real settlement to this conflict.

KING: And are the Taliban united? When they say, we're willing to work with the United States - we want this agreement to happen - is that all of them?

MALKASIAN: That is a very debated question.

KING: OK.

MALKASIAN: And so some people will say, no, they're not united. There's different factions. Other people will say that, no, they are fairly united and follow the instructions of their leader. I tend to err on that they are more united. And the main piece of evidence I would take for that was in June 2018, there was a cease-fire, a brief cease-fire, between all forces in the country. And the Taliban, almost to a man, obeyed that cease-fire.

KING: Interesting. OK. If the U.S. does go ahead and withdraw troops from Afghanistan, what role should it play diplomatically or economically to ensure that country remains stable? Or should it not?

MALKASIAN: No, the United States should continue to play a diplomatic and economic role in Afghanistan. And this is really vital for the deal continuing to last. If the Afghan government, the Afghan people and the Taliban reach an agreement, but we suddenly pull out and we stop supporting people, stop giving economic assistance, then the Taliban aren't going to have a lot of reason to continue on with that deal. And the people that we've helped in the past - they won't have much backing.

KING: They both fall apart, yeah. Carter Malkasian, former senior adviser to General Joseph Dunford, thank you so much.

MALKASIAN: Thank you very much, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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