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Former Pentagon Adviser Discusses Alleged Meeting Between U.S. Officials And Taliban

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Taliban say they have had face-to-face talks with a senior U.S. diplomat about how to begin peace talks to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan. This was first reported by The Wall Street Journal. U.S. officials are neither confirming or denying this meeting took place. Our next guest has had conversations with Taliban officials himself. Retired U.S. Army Col. Chris Kolenda commanded U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan from 2007 to 2008. He went on to become a senior adviser to the Pentagon for a number of years. Welcome to the program.

CHRISTOPHER KOLENDA: Thank you very much, Ailsa. It's great to be here.

CHANG: So the U.S. government won't comment on whether this face-to-face meeting even happened. And we should point out that reports say it took place in Qatar. What do you know about this meeting?

KOLENDA: Well, my understanding from my source is that the meeting did in fact take place. It took place over the course of one or two days. And it was a discussion sort of in general nature - an exchange of viewpoints, kind of an icebreaker for talks.

CHANG: OK. And this is an icebreaker that is breaking ice that has been solid for some six years or so - that there have not been direct talks between representatives from the Taliban and the U.S. government for several years now.

KOLENDA: Yeah, you're exactly right. So in 2011 and 2012, there were official talks - exploratory talks between the United States and the Taliban. Those talks collapsed in 2012.

CHANG: And what's your sense for why these talks have resurrected?

KOLENDA: I think for a couple of reasons. I've been in Doha talking with Taliban's political commission now on several occasions. What they convey to me directly is their concern that Afghanistan is getting ready to become a second Syria. And they look at the internal tensions within the country and then the increasingly aggressive actions by the neighbors of Afghanistan as creating a sort of powder-keg-like environment. And the upcoming Afghan presidential elections in 2019 could be the match that sort of blows the whole thing up. That's number one reason.

The second reason is that the Trump administration did the right thing in terms of shoring up the advisory effort and removing the timelines of our troop presence. And so the Taliban look at it and say, well, the huge gains that we were making in the last years of the Obama administration are no longer going to be available to us and that any further gains are going to come at a higher and higher price. So they don't believe that they can win the war outright. And so now is a good time for them to engage in talks - just like it's a good time now for us to engage in talks.

CHANG: I know that you've been volunteering as a consultant behind the scenes. You've been working with former government officials to try to broker or encourage some sort of peaceful resolution to this war. And I'm curious. In that role, when you've spoken to Taliban leadership, what do you hear from them? What do they need to get out of this before a peaceful resolution is feasible?

KOLENDA: Right. So it's a great question. And look. This war has been going on for 17 years. The cost is now $45 billion a year and a cost of tens of thousands of Afghan civilian casualties each year. I think all sides are starting to recognize that there is no sort of decisive victory if you will. And so the United States is really smart by engaging in talks because there are a couple of ways that you win wars.

First is you force the enemy to surrender. Second is you create a peace agreement that ensures that your interests are taken care of. And the Trump administration has the potential to begin a peace process that results in our interests in Afghanistan being protected. Then I think we have an obligation as a combatant under the - you know, what makes a just war - to see if there is a possibility for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

CHANG: Chris Kolenda is retired U.S. Army colonel, who is also founder of the Strategic Leaders Academy. Thank you very much for joining us.

KOLENDA: It's my pleasure, Ailsa. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "GOODNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.