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World

U.S.-Taliban Peace Deal Hits Complications From The Start

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Can a generations-long war in Afghanistan really come to an end? Over the weekend, there was hope as the U.S. and the Taliban laid the groundwork for a peace deal. But now the whole thing seems in jeopardy. The agreement included a proposed prisoner swap between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The problem is that the Afghan government wasn't part of those negotiations, and it never agreed to hand over the 5,000 prisoners demanded. The Taliban is now refusing to sit down with the Afghan government for talks until that release takes place. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has given the go-ahead to begin the withdrawal of American troops despite recognizing the challenges.

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MARK ESPER: It's going to be a constant engagement. This is going to be a long, windy, bumpy road. There will be ups and downs, and we'll stop and start.

MARTIN: For more on where this deal goes from here, Laurel Miller joins us in studio. She's the Asia director at the International Crisis Group. Before that, she served as the deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department. Thanks so much for being here.

LAUREL MILLER: Happy to be here.

MARTIN: So this initial deal was signed between the U.S. and the Taliban just four days ago. Are you surprised we're already seeing these complications?

MILLER: Well, look, peace processes are inherently fragile, and this one is no exception. This was bound to be a difficult issue, this controversy over the prisoners. I think there's still a chance it will be sorted out and that the negotiations among Afghans will start. There's a bit of a glimmer of good news on that just this morning in that the Taliban spokesman, within the last hour, tweeted that they are prepared to have their official, who's responsible for prisoners issues, meet with the government official who's responsible for prisoners issues. And so that doesn't mean that this is all going to be smoothed out immediately.

MARTIN: Right.

MILLER: But it is a sign that there's an interest in getting it sorted.

MARTIN: But as I understand it, it's - the Afghan government is supposed to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners. And then the Taliban would release a thousand Afghan troops. Why is that a good deal for the Afghan government?

MILLER: Well, up to 5,000 and up to 1,000 - so there's a little bit of wiggle room to sort something out here. Look, this is controversial for the Afghan government. And that's no surprise. To have such a significant confidence-building measure that is more beneficial to the Taliban side before the talks among Afghans have even started is a concession to the Taliban. There's no question about that.

MARTIN: I mean, did the U.S. really not have the buy-in of the Afghan government before they put this in the deal?

MILLER: I'm certain this was discussed. And there are references to it in the U.S.-Afghan government declaration that was signed on Saturday. But, you know, there's obviously a gap here between the expectations of what the U.S. could deliver and what the Afghans are currently willing to deliver.

MARTIN: So first and foremost, the Taliban wanted the U.S. out, right? Now that's going to happen. So where does that leave the Afghan government in all this? What leverage do they have going forward?

MILLER: The Taliban got a big win in an American commitment to a timeline for withdrawal. However, the U.S. left itself a lot of flexibility in how that withdrawal is paced, what exactly the conditions are under which it will withdraw. And so there's still leverage there based on the U.S. troop presence. The Afghan government does have somewhat limited leverage in this picture. But on the other hand, there's no final peace agreement to be concluded unless the Afghan government is on board. And so if both sides want peace, both sides are going to have to compromise.

MARTIN: Laurel Miller, she served as the deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department. Thank you so much.

MILLER: It was a pleasure to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.