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World

U.S. Looks For Way Out Of Afghanistan During Talks With Taliban And Afghan Government

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

After 17 years of fighting in Afghanistan, the U.S. is looking for a way out. That involves trying to strike a deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Diplomats over the last decade have often tried and failed to get these two sides to agree. Now a U.S. delegate, Zalmay Khalilzad, is in Afghanistan, making another attempt. For more we're joined by Chris Kolenda. He is the only person to have both fought as a U.S. commander in Afghanistan and held diplomatic talks with the Taliban. Welcome to the studio.

CHRIS KOLENDA: Ari, thank you very much for having me.

SHAPIRO: So this envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, started by meeting with the Taliban last week in Qatar. Now he's in Kabul, talking with the Afghan government. You know better than almost anyone how difficult it is to get these two sides to agree. Do you think there's anything different today from those past unsuccessful efforts?

KOLENDA: I think there are a couple of things. The first one is the Taliban have said they're very concerned about their country becoming a second Syria, that because of all of the tensions in Afghanistan, the rise of ISIS and, of course, the ongoing war, they're worried that something like a disputed outcome to a presidential election could be the match that blows the powder keg up and creates a new level of chaos. Secondly, I think you've got a situation in which, at least from the U.S. and Taliban standpoint, one another is beginning to recognize or not object to the other's aims.

So the Taliban have said repeatedly that they do not want Afghanistan to be a threat to its neighbors, which is code for no al-Qaida or international terrorist presence. They've also made positive statements about human rights for women and children and Afghans of all ethnicities. And at the same time, the - or the United States has said we have no interest in a permanent presence there. Then what you have is both sides not objecting to the war aims of the other. And that provides you a basis.

SHAPIRO: Sounds like you're optimistic that there actually could be an agreement here.

KOLENDA: I think there could be an agreement. The devil is going to be in the details, of course. And you want to avoid a situation in which the U.S. is making tangible commitments now in exchange for Taliban future commitments, which they could then backslide upon.

SHAPIRO: Women's rights and minority rights have come a long way in Afghanistan since the war started. Is there a concern that this kind of a deal could sacrifice some of those gains?

KOLENDA: There's a lot of concern in Afghanistan, particularly among Afghan women. I'm very concerned that as we're hearing statements from Ambassador Khalilzad's team about what was discussed in Doha - we hear about the terrorism issue. We hear about the withdrawal issue. We're not hearing about human rights. The silence has been deafening on that. And I have to believe that over the course of six days, the issue of human rights was discussed. And I hope his team will update their talking points to address that issue because it's central to this conflict.

SHAPIRO: We're talking as though a deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government is a prerequisite for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan. But why is that the case? Why can't the U.S. just say, we're done, and get out?

KOLENDA: Well, you could have an Afghan withdrawal and 280 characters or less.

SHAPIRO: A tweet.

KOLENDA: Right. And then I think what you'll see is the realization of everybody's worst fears, which is Afghanistan descending into this new level of chaos and an unmitigated humanitarian disaster.

SHAPIRO: Right now the U.S. is talking to the Afghan government and the Taliban. But those two groups aren't talking to each other.

KOLENDA: Right.

SHAPIRO: That seems like a pretty big step that still has to be taken in order for any deal to be worked out.

KOLENDA: It's absolutely critical. And everybody recognizes that there will be no peace in Afghanistan until, ultimately, you have a conversation among Afghans about how they're going to live together with one another. The way that the Taliban have framed this peace process in their own minds is make an agreement with the Americans first because that's who they believe the main conflict is with. And after that, make an agreement with the Afghan government.

SHAPIRO: Chris Kolenda is founder of the Kolenda Strategic Leaders Academy. He's participated in past peace talks with the Taliban. Thanks for joining us today.

KOLENDA: Thank you, Ari. I appreciate being on the show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.