IT HAD LOOKED like a complete rupture. In early September President Donald Trump tweeted that he had not only cancelled a summit with negotiators from the Taliban, but also “called off peace negotiations”. The hopes that had been swelling that America and the Taliban would find a way to end Afghanistan’s long, gruesome conflict were dashed. Instead, America seemed to be resorting to unilateral measures, trimming its forces in the country from 14,000 soldiers to fewer than 12,000.
Yet this week America, the Taliban and Afghanistan’s American-backed government were in contact once again. The proof was a rare hostage swap. Kevin King and Timothy Weeks, an American and an Australian, were abducted by gunmen in 2016 while teaching at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, the capital. Now they are to be released in exchange for Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government in a deal brokered by Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s pointman on Afghanistan.
Mr Khalilzad spent a long time preparing the ground for peace talks, especially getting backing for them from neighbouring countries such as Pakistan. Months haggling with Taliban emissaries in Qatar followed. By September they had agreed on the outlines of a deal, to be sealed at the summit Mr Trump cancelled. The Taliban would have promised both to prevent international terrorist groups like al-Qaeda from operating in Afghanistan and to enter talks on the country’s future that would involve the government, which it had previously dismissed as illegitimate. In return, the United States would have gradually removed most of its troops. Mr Khalilzad’s efforts marked America’s first real search for a political settlement since its invasion in 2001. That toppled the Taliban but never crushed them.
Mr Trump’s frustration with the negotiations was understandable. He cited a Taliban bombing that had killed an American serviceman just days before the planned summit as the reason for the rupture. But growing criticism from Republican allies, such as Lindsey Graham, a bellicose senator, must also have unsettled him. They worried that the negotiations were a mere cover for capitulation.
The release of three senior Taliban captives in exchange for the professors will also gall American hawks. The trio were an organiser of suicide bombings, an uncle of the Taliban’s deputy leader and Anas Haqqani, brother of Sirajuddin, the head of the ruthless Haqqani network—in effect, the leader of the Taliban’s military operations. Yet some analysts read the swap as a signal not only that the two sides are talking again, but also that the Haqqani network, the most violent and radical element of the Taliban, is ready to be part of any settlement.
America, meanwhile, has no good alternatives to talks. Simply to withdraw its forces, as Mr Trump might prefer, would be to admit that nearly two decades of American policy has failed. It would intensify the conflict, weaken the Afghan government and risk a proxy war driven by the likes of India and Pakistan.
Yet the Taliban, too, have reasons to negotiate. They have the advantage on the battlefield—by controlling vast rural areas, sending suicide bombers into the capital and making shocking raids on provincial cities. But they know they cannot win the war.
What is more, the limbo in Afghan politics—the results of a presidential election in September are still being tallied, and may lead to a second round in the spring—is not as much of an obstacle to peace as it seems. The Taliban have long wanted to negotiate a power-sharing deal with a broader range of grandees—including local strongmen, civil-society groups and politicians of all stripes, not just the government. If that model is taken up, then the uncertainty about the outcome of the election will matter less.
And what if this all goes pear-shaped? Laurel Miller of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank, is surely right in arguing that for American troops to remain in Afghanistan in perpetuity—an idea which General Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, seemed to approve of this month—is no Plan B. For a start, under Mr Trump, no American commitment can be trusted. His abrupt withdrawal of troops from northern Syria points to what he could do in Afghanistan—with disastrous consequences. All the more reason for the Afghan government to explore an accommodation with the Taliban. For ordinary Afghans peace cannot come soon enough.