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Afghanistan: Peace might be breaking out in America's longest ever war

CNN logo CNN 7/9/2019 Analysis by Nick Paton Walsh, CNN
a group of people in a field with a mountain in the background: In this photo taken on June 6, 2019, a US military Chinook helicopter lands on a field outside the governor's palace during a visit by the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller, and Asadullah Khalid, acting minister of defense of Afghanistan, in Maidan Shar, capital of Wardak province. - A skinny tangle of razor wire snakes across the entrance to the Afghan army checkpoint, the only obvious barrier separating the soldiers inside from any Taliban fighters that might be nearby. (Photo by THOMAS WATKINS / AFP) / To go with 'AFGHANISTAN-CONFLICT-MILITARY-US,FOCUS' by Thomas WATKINS        (Photo credit should read THOMAS WATKINS/AFP/Getty Images) © THOMAS WATKINS/AFP/Getty Images In this photo taken on June 6, 2019, a US military Chinook helicopter lands on a field outside the governor's palace during a visit by the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller, and Asadullah Khalid, acting minister of defense of Afghanistan, in Maidan Shar, capital of Wardak province. - A skinny tangle of razor wire snakes across the entrance to the Afghan army checkpoint, the only obvious barrier separating the soldiers inside from any Taliban fighters that might be nearby. (Photo by THOMAS WATKINS / AFP) / To go with 'AFGHANISTAN-CONFLICT-MILITARY-US,FOCUS' by Thomas WATKINS (Photo credit should read THOMAS WATKINS/AFP/Getty Images)

It may feel like the closed-door talks about peace in Afghanistan have been going on almost as long as the Afghan war itself, but now they are actually going somewhere.

The first public ray of hope came on Monday in Doha when a group of prominent Afghans, including some government officials acting in a personal capacity, managed to sit through a long -- and by all accounts respectful -- two-day meeting with the Taliban.

Although it was unofficial, they managed to agree with the Taliban a roadmap as to how they might get towards a peace deal. And, most importantly. they agreed immediately that soft targets -- the schools, women and children who should not normally be part of a conflict, but are in America's longest war -- would be off-limits for now.

Why does this development matter? It's the first time Afghans have made an agreement of this nature. And it comes after weeks of the tougher, preparatory stuff: the direct talks between the Taliban and the United States about the terms and pace of a troop withdrawal. The Taliban always insisted direct talks with the Americans must come first, and Washington has until recently resisted.

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You can read into this moment the basic fact that the Taliban and the Americans were able to find enough common ground they thought it was worth bringing in the pro-government Afghans. In short, for all of US President Donald Trump's pledges that "in the end, we will win," the commander-in-chief has seen the war for the intractable mess that it is, and appears to be talking his way out of it, quite fast.

Why does Afghanistan matter? A quick recap: It's America's longest conflict ever, and one of the most constant sources of violent deaths on the planet. It's also ISIS's latest playground, and lies next to the nuclear-armed rivals of India and Pakistan.

The last time things went awry in Afghanistan and the Taliban gave shelter to al Qaeda, it led to 9/11, and we are still mopping up the consequences of that now. More refugees come from Afghanistan than any other place in the world besides Syria, according to the UNHCR's latest global trends report. Afghanistan matters, and the nature of the peace deal the US might strike with the Taliban matters immensely as a result.

The peace playbook has been complex so far. The US had always insisted that talks are between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But the Trump administration recently ditched that proviso and started talking to its long-term enemy directly. The Taliban had been adamant that the "occupier" must agree to the terms under which it would leave before it would talk to the "puppet" government in Kabul that the US supports. Now Afghans are talking to Afghans, the prospect of a real US withdrawal timetable emerges.

So what now? The US and Taliban talks will continue. The Afghan government representatives may officially meet the Taliban in Norway later this month. Most people you ask think a peace deal really is coming. Trump clearly wants one. His Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, says he "hopes" a deal is coming by September 1.

Ordinary Afghans want the fighting to stop, whatever it takes. And curiously, the Taliban, although militarily in the ascendance, also wants one. Without the fig leaf of a pro-Western government as their partners in Kabul, analysts have suggested, they will struggle to get the international aid the country needs to stay afloat.

But one huge problem is being brushed aside: that Afghan presidential elections are long overdue. The argument for an electoral delay is that the current government would be too lame a duck if it held peace talks with elections around the corner. Yet the counter-argument is that the Taliban will struggle to agree terms with a Kabul administration it knows will soon be gone.

Either way, the Taliban and US are content to leave this aside while they explore a withdrawal timetable. In truth, it can be dealt with later, and may become less of an issue if a peace deal requires forming a transitional government, where positions are shared between foes.

The next steps will be slow, but could be momentous. An administration that pledged to win in Afghanistan will be the one that strikes a deal allowing them to slowly leave, their heads, well, not held high, but at least upright towards the exit.

The Taliban -- who fought the world's military hyperpower to a standstill -- may end up in a unity government with Afghan liberals they once called puppets. The American military may announce they are leaving their longest war ever -- albeit with a significant presence in the US embassy, or hidden in bases around the country.

All of this hasn't stopped the violence which -- as an attack in Ghazni over the weekend that injured dozens of schoolchildren and killed one illustrates -- is escalating as the peace talks unfold, with each side trying to fight towards a better negotiating hand.

It is hard to measure the recent scale of the Taliban's ascendance. The casualty levels among Afghan security forces, which once served as a gauge, have been classified, and the percentage of the country under government or Taliban control of influence is apparently not being assessed any more, according to US officials. We don't know much about the war other than it is going badly, and peace talks are underway.

The good option ahead of Afghanistan? That peace talks stick, and that the Taliban uncomfortably moderates itself to keep international aid flowing in, and uses peace to generate a broad public mandate for shared government.

The bad option? That the US retreats even further behind fortified walls and watches the two -- or many more -- sides now in the Afghan war tear each other apart, steeled by years of brutality and armed to the teeth.

Either way, it appears highly likely now we will see a peace deal in Doha, and the unprecedented hope -- however short-lived -- of no war in Afghanistan.

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