Nearly two decades into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. suddenly appears to be nearing an agreement with the Taliban that could bring the remaining 14,000 U.S. troops home.
That's causing unease inside the Afghan government, which has been left on the sidelines as the U.S. and the Taliban have held multiple rounds of talks this year in the Gulf nation of Qatar. The latest round wrapped up last week without a deal, but with signs of progress.
The Afghan government says it's prepared to negotiate with the Taliban — but the Taliban are refusing to reciprocate, calling the Afghan government an American puppet.
Roya Rahmani, Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S., said that while she supports efforts toward peace, "peace negotiations would start when the Taliban are able and ready to face the Afghan people, the people they are fighting, and their legitimate elected government."
The Taliban seized power in her homeland in the 1990s, when she was a teenager. She spent most of those years as a refugee in Pakistan, but in visits home during that time, she says she "found my country drained of energy and worse than that, drained of hope."
Many analysts are wondering whether a U.S.-Taliban deal is simply a way for the Americans to pull out of a gridlocked war, or will it lead to a genuine peace in Afghanistan.
"It remains to be seen if this is a negotiation that just concludes the U.S.'s role in Afghanistan, or if these are negotiations that actually conclude the Afghan conflict and help bring some degree of sustainability to the region after over four decades of war," said Dan Feldman of the Center for American Progress. Under President Barack Obama, he served as the State Department's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"That will depend in large part on the leverage that the U.S. will continue to have to encourage and facilitate an intra-Afghan negotiation that will actually achieve some stability in the country," he added.
President Trump has said he wants to bring the U.S. troops home and is suggesting that a deal is plausible.
"Many on the opposite side of this 19 year war, and us, are looking to make a deal - if possible!" he tweeted on Friday.
But there are still obstacles.
The Taliban want a timeline for all U.S. troops to leave. According to people familiar with the talks, the period under discussion would be two years or less.
The U.S. says the Taliban must agree on several things: a permanent cease-fire, renunciation of al-Qaida, and negotiations with the Afghan government.
"We are not cutting and running. We are not looking for a withdrawal agreement. We're looking for a peace agreement," Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration's envoy on Afghanistan, said recently.
But even if the two sides reach a deal, a host of sticky questions remain.
Would the Taliban stick to the agreement? Would it be acceptable to the Afghan government? And to what extent would the Taliban and Afghan government be able to negotiate a power-sharing agreement that would last?
Moreover, what kind of role would the Taliban play in Afghan politics, and would it accept changes since it was driven from power in 2001, such as increased opportunities for women?
Human rights observers are concerned that a deal could significantly roll back women's rights.
"I think if we look at the gains made since 2001, you know, women's rights have been at the forefront of those gains, and they've been hard fought," Patricia Gossman of Human Rights Watch recently told NPR. "I think women ... rightly fear that in any deal, or if in fact things don't lead to peace but lead to renewed fighting, women's rights will suffer."
Finally, militant groups such as ISIS could play a complicating role. Over the weekend, a suicide bombing at a wedding in Kabul killed at least 63 people, and the attack was reportedly claimed by a local ISIS affiliate.
Trump faces a tough decision. He consistently says he wants to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan — one of the few points of agreement with most Democratic presidential candidates.
But the president is getting pushback from the military and other parts of the national security establishment. They are warning that a U.S. pullout could lead to an unraveling of Afghanistan.
The U.S. presence in Afghanistan topped out at more than 100,000 under Obama. It's now down to around 14,000, but the U.S. is providing critical support.
The Americans train Afghan troops, they gather intelligence and they carry out airstrikes.
Rahmani, the Afghan ambassador, stresses that a real peace deal will need to be rooted in trust to succeed.
"What we are seeing now, the way it's going now, that does not ensure and build that trust that is required for a peace deal to succeed, for a real peace to find its way to Afghanistan," she said.
The Afghan government wants security guarantees to make sure the Taliban can't resort to violence if they don't get their way politically.
The government also wants to preserve the country's political system, which includes a presidential election on Sept. 28.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
After several rounds of negotiations, the U.S. and the Taliban appear to be within reach of a deal. President Trump is weighing the possible withdrawal of U.S. forces that have been in Afghanistan for 18 years. In turn, the U.S. wants the Taliban to agree to a cease fire in exchange for a role in the country's political system.
In a moment, Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S. will tell us how she views these talks, but we begin with NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Alisa.
CHANG: So a lot of our listeners probably haven't been following every twist and turn of these negotiations. How did we even reach the point where the U.S. and the Taliban are close to an agreement?
MYRE: So almost a year ago, President Trump appointed an envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad. And these talks began in Qatar late last year. And it was really striking to see these photos of U.S. diplomats sitting across the table from Taliban negotiators - remember seeing that at the beginning of the year. Now it's become routine. They had the latest round of the talks just last week. Still no deal, but it is becoming to look like a real possibility.
CHANG: So what are the sticking points that remain now?
MYRE: So the Taliban want all the U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. That's about 14,000. And the timeline they seem to be discussing is maybe two years, a little less.
MYRE: But U.S. and military officials are a little wary about this. They want to keep some small presence, a counterterrorism presence there. So that's a big concern. They're wary of what happened back in Iraq in 2011 when the U.S. pulled out, and then the Islamic State moved in.
MYRE: They don't want to see a repeat of that. But the U.S. also wants the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire, distance itself from al-Qaida, and negotiate with the Afghan government.
CHANG: And what do we know so far of what President Trump absolutely needs to see in this deal before agreeing to it?
MYRE: Well, you know, he's - all along, he's wanted to get the troops out of Afghanistan. So in theory, he's for this. He had a big meeting last Friday in New Jersey with his national security team. But he is getting these warnings from his military and national security folks.
We know he's unpredictable. He could say anything at any moment. And Daniel Feldman, who was the representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan under President Obama, said this needs to be a pretty measured sort of process and doesn't need to be a bombshell. So here's how he described it.
DANIEL FELDMAN: What would be worse for negotiations is for some sort of imminent announcement about a precipitous withdrawal by the U.S. after these 18 or 19 years. That would be very, very destabilizing.
CHANG: OK, so tell us what we should be expecting in the coming days or weeks now.
MYRE: Well, we could see an announcement as soon as that. Again, there's no deal, but that's a possibility. Then if there is, the Taliban and the Afghan government that would have to sit down face-to-face and talk.
And all this is coming against the backdrop of violence. We saw this horrible suicide bombing over the weekend, more than 60 people killed. Now the Islamic State claimed responsibility for that, not the Taliban. And Afghanistan has a presidential election coming up next month.
CHANG: That's NPR's Greg Myre.
MYRE: Thanks, Alisa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.