In July, The Times reported that the Trump administration directed the State Department to open direct talks with the Afghan Taliban, to see whether formal talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban are possible. Taliban officials soon claimed to have met with American diplomats, an assertion that American officials have not publicly commented on. This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced while on his way to Pakistan that Zalmay Khalilzad, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, would become an adviser on achieving reconciliation there. 

Denis McDonough
Denis McDonough was a nonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Technology and International Affairs Program.
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We welcome those moves. 

When we held high-level national security positions in previous administrations, we spent years attempting in vain to open diplomatic talks among the United States, the Afghan government and the Taliban; we believed that direct talks that would lead to a political accommodation among Afghans were the only way to end Afghanistan’s 17-year war. Now we think the Trump administration’s apparent choice to seek the same goal could mark an important milestone we could not reach.

The administration’s current policy — keeping American troops in Afghanistan without any time limit — has increased pressure on the Taliban, but military and civilian experts generally agree that there is no military solution to the Afghan war. The administration’s willingness to begin direct talks should underscore to the Taliban that the United States believes talks are the only way to achieve its stated goal — stabilizing Afghanistan to prevent it from reverting to a safe haven from which terrorists could strike America and its allies. 

Some critics, including Afghan officials, worry that direct Taliban-American talks would legitimize the insurgents and undercut Afghanistan’s elected government. To the contrary, direct talks with America could test whether the Taliban want a future in Afghanistan’s civil politics, rather than continuing their insurgency with links to Pakistan’s intelligence service. By revealing the Taliban’s real intentions in this way, such two-party talks might open the door to talks among Afghan parties. 

Douglas Lute
Ambassador Douglas Lute is the former United States Permanent Representative to the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s standing political body. Appointed by President Obama, he assumed the Brussels-based post in 2013 and served until 2017. During this period he was instrumental in designing and implementing the 28-nation Alliance’s responses to the most severe security challenges in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

The critics also question whether any Taliban partner could deliver an agreement that would bind that large, diverse movement. Does the Taliban’s political office in Doha, Qatar, represent the movement’s senior leaders? This should be a priority issue in exploratory talks. Our own experience suggests that the Doha office is the most accessible connection to the Taliban’s leaders — able to deliver decisions from the Taliban’s topmost governing body and to enforce its agreements.

Consider that more than four years have passed since five captured Taliban members were transferred on June 1, 2014, from the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in exchange for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only American soldier to have been held by the Taliban. Rather than returning to the battlefield, those Taliban members have remained in Qatar in accordance with our agreement. This is not to say that the Taliban are to be trusted, but it is evidence that the political office can deliver.

Other critics worry that the Taliban won’t engage in serious dialogue with the United States until they are defeated militarily. 

To be sure, the Taliban are nowhere near defeated, having attacked Kabul and other major Afghan cities in recent months. But the Taliban have internal political challenges that threaten their cohesion. After decades of war, they are hard-pressed to demonstrate that they offer Afghanistan something more than unending conflict. This is especially true since Taliban leaders sit in the relative calm and safety of Pakistan, far from battlefield hardships and beholden more to the demands of Pakistan’s intelligence service than to their Afghan brothers’ desires. 

It is also clear that the emergence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan threatens both the Afghan government and the Taliban, giving them a common enemy. Some disaffected Taliban fighters have joined the Islamic State, and the Taliban’s leaders know that the unstable situation in Afghanistan could well deteriorate further — another plausible incentive for a dialogue about the country’s future. 

Next month, Afghanistan will hold parliamentary elections, and in April President Ashraf Ghani will be up for re-election. He has boldly made peace his primary goal, having declared his willingness to talk with the Taliban “anywhere” and having delivered with the Taliban an extraordinary cease-fire at the conclusion of Ramadan last month. Direct talks, closely coordinated with the Ghani administration, would test the potential for a political solution and support President Ghani’s commitment to peace. America’s direct role in talks with the Taliban, which is composed largely of ethnic Pashtuns, could also reassure non-Pashtun Afghan parties that their interests will be protected in negotiations. 

Direct American-Taliban talks are not a panacea. They can only set the stage for Afghan government talks with the insurgents, in which Afghanistan’s future can be decided among Afghans. And even those talks alone will not deliver stability. In the end, a broader diplomatic effort will have to account for Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China, India and the Gulf States, all of which have interests in the outcome. Such a political process will be neither quick nor simple. But direct American-Taliban talks are a fine place to start. 

America, after all, has led the international effort in Afghanistan since just after Sept. 11, 2001. We have decimated Al Qaeda, the terrorist group that attacked us, and for 17 years we have devoted resources to stabilizing Afghanistan to ensure it will not revert to being a terrorists’ sanctuary. After this sustained international effort, we agree with many experts that the moment is ripe to pursue a durable political solution as the capstone to this long campaign. 

Now, as in 2001, American leadership is required. We should talk directly to the Taliban to open the door to a political outcome in Afghanistan that secures our national interests.

This article was originally was published in the New York Times.