The Taliban seem to be singing the right tune, even if it’s a bit off-key.

Over the weekend, Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief U.S. negotiator in the nascent Afghan peace talks, told the New York Times, “The Taliban have committed, to our satisfaction, to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals.”

Those are strong words coming from a sober, seasoned diplomat like the Afghan-born Khalilzad, who has been the “ace in the hole” for the U.S. since the war began. I hosted him in November 2004 when we officially opened the Pakitika Provincial Reconstruction Team outside the town of Sharan. He insisted on a separate lunch meeting with the assembled tribal elders from around the province, without any other Americans present. I remain convinced that that meeting was as productive as any reconstruction project we undertook during my time there.

So if Khalilzad says the Taliban are moving in the right direction, it’s probably fairly accurate. The Times report also quoted an anonymous source who said that Taliban negotiators requested a break to consult with leadership over the American demand that further peace talks be predicated on a Taliban ceasefire and the participation of the elected government of Afghanistan.

The fact that the Taliban delegation felt the need to go back to their bosses, declining to reject the proposal outright, is a positive sign. But we’re not there yet.

Long road to peace

There are other promising signs as well. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who had a hand in founding the Taliban movement alongside Mullah Mohammed Omar in the 1993 and served as deputy minister of defense in the Taliban government through its fall in 2001, is joining the Taliban negotiating team as chief negotiator. According to one special operator on the ground in the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom, whose name I’ll keep out of this, Baradar was also commanding the Taliban forces near the southern city of Tarin Kowt in November 2001. This retired Special Forces officer also believes Baradar’s influence kept Afghan President Hamid Karzai alive during his tenure.

As veteran Pakistani journalist and Taliban chronicler Ahmed Rashid pointed out, Baradar carries a kind of credibility that few in the organization can match. In addition to being a key confidant of Mullah Omar and leading the Taliban’s last fights against the U.S. and our Pashtun allies, he negotiated the Taliban surrender in 2001. And he’s tried to negotiate a peace deal in the past.

He began negotiations in 2009 but was suddenly arrested by the Pakistani military, who didn’t appreciate being kept out of the negotiations. He was released in October of last year. His return to the table is widely seen as a sign that the Taliban are serious about negotiations. He is, in the words of my SF contact, “the right man for the job.”

The surest signs that The Taliban are serious, however, will be a ceasefire, and an agreement to include the Afghan government in talks. Without those two, there’s no clear path to a negotiated settlement. I’ve written before that the key to settling an internal conflict like Afghanistan is for each side to recognize the legitimacy of the other. As long as the Afghan government acknowledges that the Taliban can play a role in a peaceful Afghanistan while the Taliban clings to the belief that the Afghan government is an illegitimate puppet of the United States, there can be no progress.

A beginning, not the end

A negotiated settlement, though, need not mean the end of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. Quite the contrary, our work would really just be getting started.

As I’ve also said before, our national leadership has not always done a particularly good job at defining what the “end state” in Afghanistan looks like. But during my two tours, I understood that end state to be “a stable and secure country, capable of self-sustainment, that respects individual rights, and which will never again be the base of operations for planning and executing a terrorist attack on the American homeland.”

There’s no reason to change that goal. Negotiations can get us there. Ending the fighting will allow us to help our Afghan partners being the process of demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of Taliban fighters. It’s far easier to build an Army—not to mention the entire government—when that Army is freed from the daily pressure of fighting an insurgency.

But that doesn’t mean our work will be done. When I sat with Afghan village elders over those countless cups of chai, a refrain I heard over and over again was that they were not afraid the U.S. would stay too long, but that we would leave before the job was done. They felt hat we gave just enough support to help them win the the fight against the Soviet occupation, but when the Russians left, we abandoned them when they needed us the most. The power vacuum our sudden withdrawal left created the space for the Taliban to rise to power.

We cannot allow that to happen again.

I have no doubt that the more than 13 years of war the Afghans have endured since I was last in their country has changed that calculus for many of those elders. But countries with short life expectancies have young populations, and Afghanistan is no exception. Half of the population is under the age of 15. Ponder that for a moment. Roughly 17.5 million people living in Afghanistan have known nothing but the war against the Taliban.

Their parents, however, remember the Taliban’s oppression all too well. A recent Reuters story highlighted the fact that despite the constant threat of violence, the youngest generation of Afghans enjoys the relatively cosmopolitan atmosphere in cities like Kabul and Herat. Although they may not realize that Kabul was like that before the Soviet invasion, they have heard the stories of Taliban repression from their parents.

They have no desire to give up music or sports or technology, or to live under the kind of repressive, medieval regime that made life miserable for their parents. I suspect the Taliban understand this as well, as much as it must bother, even anger, the most hardline and fundamentalist amongst them.

Khalilzad and the U.S. negotiators appear to be on the brink of a breakthrough, but they must keep their eye on that final end state. The president may want to wrap things up in short order, but to quote the late Margaret Thatcher’s August 1990 advice to President George H.W. Bush, “This is no time to go wobbly.”

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Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin