Haji Din Mohammed met with the Taliban for the first time on the public record on July 7, 2015, in the town of Murree, Pakistan, just outside Islamabad. It was Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. After sunset, he and his colleagues — delegates from the High Peace Council, the Afghan government’s official negotiating body — sat down for a customary iftar dinner at their hotel before heading over to a nearby golf resort.
Din Mohammed, who is in his early sixties, has a white beard and rheumy eyes. That evening, he wore a lungi, a turban that indicated his elite social status, and a shalwar kameez, an elegant tunic and trousers. He and his delegation were ushered into a sparsely appointed room and seated along one side of a long table. Facing them were three Taliban envoys. On their left were the Pakistani hosts; on their right, three observers from the United States and China. For this historic occasion, the resort served milk tea and summer fruit. Like most Afghans, Din Mohammed prefers green tea, considering the Pakistani variety too sweet, so his cup went untouched.
It was already ten in the evening when the discussion began, though in a sense the participants had been waiting fourteen years, as no one could agree on who was fighting whom. The Afghan government viewed the enduring conflict within its borders as an undeclared war between Afghanistan and Pakistan; Pakistan saw it through the prism of a threat from India; the Taliban were resisting American intervention; America was battling Al Qaeda.
That night, the aim was modest: set an agenda for a follow-up meeting. The group eased in with niceties, as some of the adversaries on either side of the table had once been allies and neighbors. Din Mohammed was the first to address the room. He took inventory of the advances that Afghanistan had made over the past decade: the improvements to education, health care, and the national economy. Then he made his case for ending the war. A death is a death is a death, he said. If friendly forces were murdered, the deaths were mourned, and when Taliban fighters were killed, he insisted, “We cry for them too.” He went on, “War will destroy you. War will destroy us all.”
But the dialogue soon buckled. The Taliban emissaries seemed to have “arrived already angry,” Din Mohammed said when he recounted the meeting to me. Abdul Latif Mansour, a member of the Taliban delegation, told the Americans, his temper rising, “We had our own government, but you pushed us out.” Then he erupted at the High Peace Council. “You let them do night raids. You are nothing! We should be leading the country, not you. We are not tired. We can continue fighting for longer!” This was not an idle threat: The Taliban have an operating budget of around $500 million for some 30,000 fighters. It’s not much compared with the $3 billion that the U.S. Department of Defense will spend in 2017 on the 352,000-strong Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, but the group’s benefactors are unhindered by a legislature or recalcitrant public, and a steady stream of money comes in from drug revenues and zakat (religious taxes). Anatol Lieven, a global-terrorism scholar based at Georgetown University’s campus in Qatar, told me, “They can outlast us all.”
Din Mohammed called for a tea break. During the recess, he urged his delegation to stay focused: this was their opportunity to engage, and all they needed was a plan for the next talk. The alternative, he reminded them, was unceasing violence.
When everyone returned to the table, the Taliban negotiators were noticeably less acerbic, more deferential, addressing Din Mohammed with the honorific “mujahed.” The group worked steadily into the night, forgoing the resort’s offer of a breakfast at two-thirty in the morning — the last victual before resuming the fast — so they could keep talking. A few hours before sunrise, they bade one another farewell, promising to meet again at the end of the month.
The following week, Din Mohammed flew from Kabul, where his office is based, to Mecca, to build goodwill with other Taliban representatives. He was told that senior Taliban officials approved of the peace meetings, and returned home glowing with optimism. Days later, the annual Eid al-Fitr message of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s leader, was released. “If we look into our religious regulations,” it read, “We can find that meetings and even peaceful interactions with the enemies is not prohibited.” The president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, praised Mullah Omar’s conciliatory tone in his own Eid address.
But a couple of weeks later, two days before the second meeting was to be held, an announcement was made on the news: Mullah Omar was dead. Not only that, he had died back in 2013. Din Mohammed was shocked, and then filled with questions. Who had written the Eid message? Who had been leading the group for the past two years? And with whom had the High Peace Council really been negotiating?
He learned that the Taliban’s peace delegates were in Islamabad awaiting instructions. They, too, had been stunned by the report of Mullah Omar’s death, which had been kept secret by the organization’s top brass. (According to one account, he had died of tuberculosis at a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan; others reported that he was buried in the southern Afghan province of Zabul.) Yet Din Mohammed was determined to carry on as planned, and convened his team at their office to review the agenda. The discussion had just gotten started when a secretary interrupted with an update: in light of recent events, Pakistan was canceling the meeting. Everyone got up, gathered their things, and left.
That evening, the Taliban Supreme Council in Quetta, Pakistan — known as the Quetta Shura — met to install a new leader. Most were in favor of elevating Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, Omar’s deputy, who had been running daily operations since 2010. But Mansour, a portly man in his late forties, was a drug baron from Kandahar with business interests in Dubai — no revolutionary folk hero. There was an attempt to block his appointment, but by midnight, he managed to win a majority’s consent.
Din Mohammed woke to this news, along with the disquieting revelation that the Taliban envoys he had met with in Murree had likely been sent against their will by the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s spy agency. As the confusion mounted, however, he perceived an opportunity. Perhaps the Taliban, with the surprise of a new leader, would be amenable to peace negotiations. Perhaps the United States, after a decade of halfhearted efforts, would put its weight behind ending the civil war. It would be a time of trying all things.
But first, a coronation: in Quetta, thousands of supplicants turned out to swear allegiance to the new Amir al-Muminin (“commander of the faithful”). They hardly could have imagined that within a year, as if in a cosmic test of Afghanistan’s nerve, Mansour would be dead, and the world would be watching the ascent of Donald Trump.
Peace requires patience. It took Vietnam negotiators five years to sign a ceasefire agreement. Resolving the war between Iran and Iraq took eight. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which halted hostilities between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, was built on the failures of three attempts going back to 1973.
In Afghanistan, peace has long been elusive. After the American invasion in 2001 and the rapid collapse of the Taliban regime, international stakeholders met in Bonn, Germany, at the end of the year to choose a new leader for the country. Absent was anyone from the Taliban, who were “running around trying to avoid being killed by the Americans,” Barnett Rubin, who participated in the meeting on behalf of the United Nations, told me. The dignitaries settled on Hamid Karzai, a forty-four-year-old mujahed, as interim president.
The same day, Karzai went to meet senior Taliban officials in Shah Wali Kot, a town in southern Afghanistan. While he was on his way, a 2,000-pound bomb, guided by satellite from a U.S. B-52 flying north of Kandahar, missed its target, killing three Americans and five Afghan fighters, and wounding many more. When Karzai arrived in Shah Wali Kot, he recalled to me recently, he found a fifteen-man Taliban delegation waiting, with a letter surrendering power to him and “asking nothing in return.” I asked how he had felt. “It was an eventful day,” he said.
The letter was read aloud to the nation on the radio that night. Karzai never saw the document again, but its effects were immediate. In exchange for a public truce, he promised to grant the Taliban total amnesty.
As he was ironing out the details, however, Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. secretary of defense, declared that there would be no such agreement. Night raids began around that time, with U.S. Special Operations Forces going after Taliban officials, “harassing them, attacking their houses, stealing their motorbikes and cows, creating the impression that there was no room for them in the new order,” according to a report from the Open Society Foundations. For the Taliban, the lesson was clear: Karzai was unreliable, and America wished only to impose revenge on its vanquished enemy. Some continued to work on reconciliation, but many more opted to rebuild their movement into the formidable militant group we know.
When Barack Obama took office, in 2009, interest in peace talks was revived. The Taliban were consistent in their demands — they wanted to open an office, see imprisoned members released from Guantánamo Bay, and have their names removed from the U.N. sanctions list. Over years of faltering, informal conversations and trade-offs, many of their requests were eventually granted: a political office was permitted in Doha, Qatar; five Taliban prisoners were released; and fourteen of 137 names were crossed off the list, allowing those members to travel freely.
On June 18, 2013, six months into Obama’s second term, those watching the news in Kabul would have seen two major stories: in the morning, Karzai gave a speech marking the official security handover from NATO to the Afghan military; in the afternoon, the Taliban’s political office opened in a diplomatic enclave of Doha. The Taliban flag, inscribed with the shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith, flew high in a courtyard, as if designating the embassy of a sovereign state. Karzai had only reluctantly consented when American negotiators arranged for the office; now he was livid. Within a month, the place was shuttered, and the peace agenda stalled once again.
Karzai’s second term ended in September 2014. Ashraf Ghani, his successor, made clear in his inaugural address that reconciliation would be a renewed priority. “We are tired of war; our message is peace,” he declared, and went on, “For stability, security, and economic development, we will try to reach a regional cooperation pact with all our neighbors.” Two months later, he visited Pakistan to court military leadership at their base, in Rawalpindi, and decided to offer substantial concessions: cadets would fly there for training, weapons orders from India would be canceled. This was a cop to Pakistan’s pride; the only way to secure cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, many observers believe, is by pandering to Pakistan’s insecurity over its conflict with India. Back home, however, many of Ghani’s countrymen were horrified. Karzai publicly called the arrangement an “atrocious betrayal.” He told me, “Pakistan was allowed to harbor the Taliban leadership and to train them and to equip them. They made serious mistakes that cost them so much and they cost us so much.”
Ghani pushed to get peace talks started before the Taliban began their spring offensive, but he didn’t make it in time. However receptive Mullah Mansour might have been to negotiations — he gave a nod to the Political Commission, the Taliban’s diplomatic wing, to continue their work — when he took over as leader, he needed first and foremost to consolidate his power. On August 7, 2015, a truck bomb went off in central Kabul, killing fifteen people and injuring hundreds. Within hours, a U.S. Special Forces base was attacked, and ten died. Three days after that, an assault on the Kabul airport killed five and wounded seventeen. In October, the northern city of Kunduz became the first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban since their regime had lost control of the country fourteen years earlier.
This past spring, the violence escalated. On the morning of April 19, a blast ripped through central Kabul. Taliban militants had driven a truck full of explosives into the headquarters of an elite security team. When I arrived a few hours later, the street, normally full of vendors selling cigarettes and biscuits, was deserted and littered with the detritus of the bombing: husks of cars, a sullied prayer rug. Where there once stood walls were sheets of metal contorted like Richard Serra sculptures. The thirty-eight arched windows of the Eid Gah Mosque, where Afghanistan declared its independence from Britain in 1919, were entirely shattered. Broken glass glinted in the sun. A NATO blimp hovered in the sky.
By afternoon, residents began to put the pieces of their lives back together. Stalls reappeared, selling the last strawberries of the season. Commuters were heading home, disks of still-warm bread under their arms. A man carrying a flower passed the bomb site without a glance. Livery cabs slowed to collect passengers.
The next day, the Ministry of Interior Affairs announced the toll: sixty-four killed, 347 injured. Later, more deaths were counted, bringing the official number up to sixty-eight. This was the deadliest attack to date since 2001, a statement from the Taliban to Afghans that their government could not protect them. The chief executive officer and foreign minister lost bodyguards in the bombing, and the vice president lost a nephew. Ghani gave a rare speech before a joint session of parliament, broadcast on television, in which he called elements of the Taliban “the enemy.” Soon after, the government hanged six Taliban militants — prisoners of war or political prisoners, depending on whom you asked. A Taliban official tried to persuade me that it was unlikely the men sentenced to death had any connection to his group, but said, “This execution blocked the way for peace.” When I visited Waheed Muzhda, a political analyst, to talk about the peace process, he shook his head. “After the last attack,” he said, “everything is finished.”
According to the theory of conflict resolution developed by I. William Zartman, a scholar of international politics, there are four conditions that must come together in order to achieve peace: (a) a “mutually hurting” stalemate, (b) awareness that it is mutual and that it is hurting and that it is a stalemate, (c) united leadership, and (d) a belief that you may get from negotiating what you have not gotten from fighting. Afghanistan at the start of 2017 meets one of these: (a) both sides have suffered losses, yes, but (b) neither believes that it has, (c) the Ghani Administration and the Taliban leadership are unstable, and (d) factions on both sides persist that indulge the fantasy of a military triumph.
Conservative estimates by the U.S. military put the Afghan government in control of more than 60 percent of the country and the Taliban at 10 percent, with the rest contested. When I read these numbers to a former high-ranking Afghan security official, he laughed and guessed that, if anything, the figures were likely the reverse, and the expanse of contested territory is really much larger. Over the past fifteen years, checkpoints, district centers, roads, fields, and aqueducts have been fought over, falling into government control, wrested back by the Taliban, and won again by soldiers. These advances and retreats have not amounted to anyone’s victory. In the meantime, essential services can’t be delivered, as some areas switch loyalties back and forth overnight.
And what of the country’s leadership? Ghani came into the presidency after a protracted election that threatened to plunge Afghanistan into deeper chaos. The so-called National Unity Government, a power-sharing coalition brought about by Secretary of State John Kerry, installed Ghani’s opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, in a prime-ministerial position. The administration has, of course, been beset by infighting, and some ministers continue to defer to Karzai. Abdullah, addressing a crowd in his office garden, called Ghani unfit to govern. Last April, when whispers began of a coup, Kerry made a return trip to quell any mutiny.
Apart from deficient governance, the High Peace Council has been hemorrhaging money. In recent years, members’ salaries and stipends for luxury cars, airfare, and security have reportedly run up a bill of as much as $700 million. Last summer, rather than propose a new budget strategy, the council burned through its emergency fund. In response to accusations of corruption, members said it wasn’t their fault that peace eluded them.
At the same time, the disclosure of Mullah Omar’s death had precipitated the biggest leadership crisis in the Taliban’s history. Many fighters questioned the legitimacy of an organization that had been lying to its members. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which for more than a decade had fought alongside the Taliban, broke away to join the Islamic State. Its exasperated leader, Uthman Ghazi, wrote in a public announcement that the only communication he had received from his supposed leader in recent years was “two fabricated letters that were typed off on the computer which didn’t have his signature!”
Mullah Mansour responded by requesting a fatwa that would offer justification for targeting Islamic State fighters. In December 2015, rumor spread of a violent altercation within the Taliban leadership, and Mansour, it was said, was badly injured in a shoot-out. He allowed his delegates to continue to meet on unofficial terms with peace negotiators, but even as the Taliban gained ground, it had become harder to tell what constituency the Political Commission could really speak for.
The discord of Mansour’s reign came to a sudden halt last May, when an American drone struck a taxi across the Pakistani border in Balochistan. The dr
iver and his passenger, Mullah Mansour, were killed. Mansour had been traveling on a fake Pakistani passport. The strike, a high-ranking Afghan government official told me, was a hunting call to the Taliban. “ ‘There is no option that is open to you,’ ” he said. “ ‘Americans will kill you anywhere you go.’ ”
The Taliban quickly chose Maulvi Haibatullah Akhundzada, a religious scholar, as Mansour’s replacement. Maulvi Haibatullah, a preacher’s son from Kandahar, had risen within the organization thanks to his talent for resolving disputes. His promotion would soon enable the Taliban to reset their operations with new force.
Into this mire comes Donald Trump. When his win was announced, Ashraf Ghani sent him a staid note of congratulations. “It breaks my heart to have to say this, but the Republican government is going to be better than the Democrats for Afghanistan,” Scott Guggenheim, an American friend of Ghani’s who advises him on policy, told me. “The Democrats would have said, ‘They are still squabbling, this is a waste of time, let’s just go home.’ The Republicans will say, ‘These guys are fighting the radicals; we have to stay engaged with them.’ ” Does that mean the Trump Administration is likely to accomplish anything in Afghanistan? “I doubt it. But they won’t go home.”
Trump maintains that his guiding political philosophy is “America First.” As a foreign policy, this has generally been interpreted as isolationism, yet he also speaks aggressively on the Islamic State — “Their days are numbered,” he has said. “His policies on the campaign trail were so mutually contradictory and changeable that he is much harder to predict than an orthodox president-elect would be,” Stephen Biddle, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me.
Trump has expressed interest in extracting the United States from its nation-building commitments in Afghanistan — the Obama Administration had already begun to reduce the number of troops there, though 8,400 remain — but he has also suggested the possibility of providing American forces abroad in exchange for cash. In December, during a congressional review of troop caps led by Vicky Hartzler, a Republican of Missouri, House members and military experts sifted out the merits of repealing set limits on the number of forces deployed. The next day, General John Nicholson, the top military commander in Afghanistan, told reporters at the Pentagon, “We have adequate resources.” Trump was not caught listening to either consultation, though with the aid of a friendly Republican Congress and expanded executive privileges, he will be wielding greater power than either George W. Bush or Barack Obama to contend with a conflict that stumped both of them.
Over the years, Trump’s comments on Afghanistan have been rare. In 2011, he told Fox News, “In Afghanistan, they build a school. They blow up the school. They blow up the road. We then start all over again.” When asked about the conflict directly, he invariably pivots to a diatribe against Pakistan. “He talks about Afghanistan only if he’s cornered, and when cornered, he has said that he simply wants to get out,” Biddle observed. “On the other side of the ledger, some of his national-security appointees have been very hawkish — and moreover, they are particularly hawkish in what they see as a global war against Islamist militancy.” Trump’s pick for national-security adviser — Michael T. Flynn, a lieutenant general who ran military intelligence in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011 and has persistently characterized the country as a threat to the United States — will have a formidable influence on his decision-making. With the defense secretary James Mattis, who led the first Marine force into Afghanistan in September 2001, and who Trump called “the closest thing we have to General George Patton,” the American military could become ever more entrenched on the battlefield.
Trump’s selection for secretary of state — Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil, who has a close relationship with Vladimir Putin — could mean that Russia, which nearly thirty years since its withdrawal from Afghanistan has been investing in housing and factories there, may seize this opportunity to muscle back in. Last year, Putin’s envoy told state media of peace talks, “Honestly speaking, we’re already tired of joining anything Washington starts,” and days later Russia sent the Afghan security forces ten thousand automatic rifles, hoping to strengthen direct ties with Kabul. Meanwhile, “It is openly known that Russia is reaching out to the Taliban,” Jodi Vittori, a senior policy adviser for the organization Global Witness, told me. Tillerson, answering to Trump, appears promising for Russia as it grasps at regional dominance. And this would free up Trump to focus on the domestic priority, Making America Great Again.
Distressing as the virulent anti-Muslim sentiment among many in Trump’s inner circle may be, the extent of their Afghanistan experience thrills the Kabul elite. “We know and everybody knows how heated campaign rhetoric becomes,” Hila Alam, who is second in command at the Afghan Embassy, told me. She had attended the Republican Convention, where she met with several Trump advisers. “There is this rhetoric out there that concerns people who say there is a tendency to be Islamophobic, who see that rhetoric among certain groups in the U.S. But I don’t see this having a hard spillover effect on policy decisions in Afghanistan.” She went on, “You have a real partner to work with here.”
The United States and other foreign donors have already committed $800 million annually to Afghanistan through 2020. But when the author of The Art of the Deal is considering a course of action, the decision may not come down to honoring contracts so much as his temperament. “He is going to have much less patience for less-effective leadership,” Christopher Kolenda, a former senior Pentagon official who is writing a policy brief on Afghanistan for the Center for a New American Security, told me. “And he is more likely to question why we are spending more on security assistance in Afghanistan than we do in any other country in the world.”
The first recorded peace agreement in Islam is from seventh-century Arabia, when the Prophet Mohammed negotiated the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah. The treaty granted pilgrimage rights to Muslims living outside Mecca. According to Islamic scholars, talks almost broke down because Meccans objected to the prophet being called the messenger of God. Mohammed, who could neither read nor write, asked for his hand to be guided to the clause in dispute, and struck the mention from the page.
That the prophet himself was the original peacemaker has drawn many to compromise — the sophisticated and charlatans, some selfless and others hubristic. In the spring and summer of 2016, I wandered in and out of the offices of well-known businessmen and tribal elders, only to bump into emissaries from insurgent groups. Underneath the subcutaneous layers of officially sanctioned activities, I came upon scores of small gestures, olive branches extended to former colleagues, inmates, classmates, and family members. The Taliban Political Commission was said to be meeting quietly with representatives from thirty to forty countries. The troubled High Peace Council was involved, too. “There is hardly a political group in Afghanistan that is not in contact with them,” a high-ranking security official told me. Over time, conversations had been taking place in Kyoto, Dubai, Chantilly, Mecca, and Oslo. The hope was to arrange another formal meeting like the one that Din Mohammed had led in Murree.
Even deeper below the surface, I found academics and former officials, informed enough about their country’s positions to serve as messengers without the weight of political office. In negotiation parlance, these most casual talks are called Track 2. Because the participants tend to be nongovernmental, the conversations that began during the Obama years can continue during Trump’s presidency.
Perhaps the most prolific organizer of Afghanistan’s Track 2 initiatives is Khalilullah Safi, a tall, spindly man who wears his hair in a square flattop. He is a habitual texter, and at all times carries five cell phones with as many chargers. He gives different numbers to different groups, and often appears distracted, scrolling through the alerts coming through his Skype, Emo, and Viber accounts. Because there is no Pashto keyboard for the iPhone, he types messages to his Taliban contacts in English.
Safi grew up in an affluent land-owning family in eastern Afghanistan, where his father was an elder in their tribe. He was a small child when the Soviet-backed communist government stormed into power, in 1979, and his family was displaced across the border to Pakistan. There, he enrolled at Dawat al-Jihad, a fundamentalist university where his classmates were future Taliban revolutionaries. Later, he began working with some of them in his capacity as a mediator, which twice landed him in prison, as he was ensnarled by Afghanistan’s legal ban on “illegitimate” contact with the Taliban. In 2011, he was fully acquitted, and hired to serve as the U.N.’s Taliban whisperer.
Safi is now working for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, a conflict-resolution organization, and continuing his informal meetings with high-ranking Taliban officials in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf. Officially, the Afghan government and foreign dignitaries disapprove of Safi’s efforts, considering him a meddler. Nicholas Haysom, who led the U.N. in Afghanistan, told me that the Taliban use Track 2 exercises as a way of avoiding formal negotiations. “The world is saying to the Taliban, ‘You have to come to direct talks.’ They are saying, ‘No, we don’t need to come to direct talks. We will go to Track Two.’ We are saying, ‘That’s not talking to the government. That’s just laying out your propaganda.’ ” But Safi told me that, in the past year, he and his colleagues had made more headway with the Taliban’s delegates than any formal negotiations could have.
One morning this past spring, Safi invited me to attend a Pugwash meeting in Kabul. The central drama was seating. Pugwash’s office had twenty-one comfortable chairs, but he was expecting at least twenty-five guests. Afghanistan is a highly coded society, with rules governing where you sit, your gait, how you serve tea, and the note of your laughter. When a person of higher standing walks into a room, you are expected to position yourself accordingly — it is not uncommon to have an entire room rearrange itself to accommodate a newcomer.
After Safi was satisfied with the placement of the chairs, the doors opened, and everyone entered: former government ministers, tribal leaders, and people identified as “Taliban sympathizers.” Taking their carefully assigned seats, the participants went through a peace proposal sketched out by Paolo Cotta-Ramusino, the head of Pugwash. The discussion lasted hours. The group covered prospects for federalism (intimidating), religious plurality (contentious), constitutional reform (inevitable), and a ceasefire (yes, but how?). In the end, successive meetings were arranged, hands shaken, and cheeks kissed. They had a rough draft. Everyone stepped out to the street, past concertina wire and armed guards.
The following Thursday, the start of the Muslim weekend, Safi called to ask if I would like to accompany him and Cotta-Ramusino to Jalalabad. They had incorporated the feedback from the meeting and were shopping the proposal around. Safi wanted to leave that night. The Kabul–Jalalabad highway extends across a narrow gorge where travelers regularly crash down rock cliffs to their deaths. The sun had been setting by six, which was also when the police guarding checkpoints along the route went home for the evening, and I preferred to travel in daylight, I told him. A compromise was struck: we would leave at three in the afternoon and arrive just before the sun set.
We rode east. Cotta-Ramusino told me about his time as a member of the Avanguardia Operaia, the Trotskyist student group in 1970s Italy. Cotta-Ramusino, who now teaches functional analysis at the University of Milan, has the build of a jumbo egg. He was squeezed uncomfortably into the front passenger seat, next to a hired driver. Like many leftists of his time, he explained, he once supported the Cultural Revolution in China. “I regret it,” he said, and sighed.
Safi, without glancing up from his phone, gestured out the window. “Okay, Paolo, from here until where you can see is Taliban area,” he said. We passed vertiginous hills set against a cornflower-blue sky.
Cotta-Ramusino looked at the landscape. “I understand how radicals think,” he said. “I was one myself.”
As the sun dipped behind palm fronds, we arrived at our first meeting, with peace activists at the home of a local elder. Sugarcane juice was served. Cotta-Ramusino took notes. Consultative democracy, it turned out, is a small nightmare. There was nothing to inoculate the process from tangents, and much got lost in translation. “Forecasting is particularly difficult, especially concerning the future,” Cotta-Ramusino said, borrowing the line from Niels Bohr. When no one laughed, he added, “It’s a joke.” Nothing still. The conversation began to coalesce around blaming Pakistan, a conversational bog from which there is no escape, and yet Cotta-Ramusino exhibited the same patience with illiterate villagers as he did with high-ranking Taliban members. Afghanistan’s shoes-on, shoes-off custom was tough on his bad right knee, but he did not complain.
The next day, Safi introduced us to two men who “understand the situation very well” — code for “linked to the Taliban.” This can mean anything from “I sat next to one of them in Koran-reading class once” to “I am an active fighter.” These men were from Bati Kot and Achin, areas farther east that had fallen to the Islamic State. Over a lunch of fried fish and watermelon, they said that they approved of the drafted peace proposal but remained upset at Ghani for the hangings in April. To them, it was proof that the president was not serious about reconciliation. Why else, they wondered, would he do something that would alienate the base he was trying to make nice with?
The proposal-shopping continued the following week, this time in Doha, where we were to meet with the Taliban’s Political Commission at a five-star hotel. When we arrived, Cotta-Ramusino headed upstairs to sort out the seating. I waited for the Taliban. I was wearing a black, tent-like abaya and a scarf around my head. Out of habit, I’d put on red lipstick, but when I caught my reflection in the stainless-steel elevator doors, it seemed too much, and I wiped it off.
The Taliban delegation arrived eight minutes late, with mea culpas about the traffic. There were three of them, wearing taqiyah caps, beards, and shiny metallic watches. The older men were avuncular, the youngest handsome. I led them up to the meeting room. After everyone sat down, Cotta-Ramusino and the head of the Taliban delegation discussed whether they should eat the cookies that had been put out on the table. They were both watching their sugar, they said, and decided against it.
For the next two hours, the men wrangled over the same subjects they always talked about: reopening the Doha office, releasing the last of the Guantánamo prisoners, and removing the remaining Taliban members from the sanctions list. Cotta-Ramusino urged the delegation not to get hung up on the specifics of the proposal. “Don’t make this into a wish list,” he warned. “Otherwise we will get nowhere. You have to think about what is essential for you and what is not essential for you.”
Cotta-Ramusino contended that both sides agreed, roughly, on the outlines of peace: everyone knew that foreign troops could not remain in Afghanistan forever; a ceasefire needed to be negotiated; and power, however bitterly, had to be shared. “It should be within the framework of Islamic rule and Afghan tradition,” one of the Taliban members said.
“Sure, sure, sure,” Cotta-Ramusino replied, with the wave of a hand. Then he added, “Tradition is one thing, but we have to improve on that tradition.”
The Taliban representatives suggested that they were open to progress. When the subject of women’s rights came up, one of the men pointed at me, and said, “You can receive education. You can hold positions.”
As Cotta-Ramusino walked them through the proposal, the delegates would stop, discuss each point among themselves, and then ask him to explain. “Everyone is working on your return to political life,” he assured them. They did not appear convinced. The Ghani Administration’s hangings, they complained, defied any understanding. “They only raised slogans of peace, but in practice, they oppose peace,” one of the older men said.
Still, they agreed to convene again soon. “To have a normal life, it’s a very strong feeling,” another Taliban delegate said. “Nobody wants the war anymore.” As they took their leave, I looked down at the plate of cookies. Despite the earlier promise, all had been eaten.
How can the war end? The best-case scenario may be a negotiated settlement, reached with or without Donald Trump’s help. “Like other nations of the world, Afghans also have the right to elect their own leadership and to decide about their future without the interfering of foreigners,” Safi told me when we spoke after the election. He was glad that Trump had won, viewing him as an isolationist. On the other hand, perhaps the new U.S. president could give an interventionist nudge: “It will be great if he bombs all these elements and groups who are anti-peace,” Safi said.
The Taliban are similarly looking forward to the arrival of Trump. “He should withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and unlike other former U.S. rulers, he should neither seek any more titles of ignominy for himself and American generals nor worsen the American prestige, economy, and military by engaging in this futile war,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesperson, told me. “Let the Afghan people as an independent nation build an autonomous system that has interaction with one another and with the world.”
Trump may be amenable to satisfying the Taliban’s request. “There is a willingness on his part to entertain all options, and a total pullout is one of those options,” Kolenda told me. But, he warned, “A total troop withdrawal will encourage the Taliban to keep fighting.”
Haysom, who was the U.N.’s man in Afghanistan, said he was “professionally obligated to be an optimist,” and that he still believed in the Afghan peace process, because the dueling sides were more similar than they cared to admit. The problem, Safi told me, is that they do not see each other for what they are. “The Taliban believes the power is in the hands of the Americans,” he said. “The Afghan government accuses the Taliban of being spies of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence.”
Many Taliban leaders remain bitter over Washington’s strike against Mullah Mansour. At a meeting in September, the Political Commission fumed at America’s apparent lack of sincerity. “We have doubts whether the U.S. is honest about the peace process,” the minutes from the meeting read. “They are not taking any initiative since the past ten years to show they are genuine.” Safi suggested that the novelty of Trump might encourage his contacts to return to talks.
But when I called Din Mohammed at the High Peace Council to ask about his outlook, he said of the attack on Mansour, “When he died, everything ended with him. Slowly, slowly, we were going to the point of speaking with the Taliban.” He did not know when their next chance would come. These days, few bother showing up at his office.
Over the years, some local communities have taken matters into their own hands. Tribal elders, tired of the fighting that destroys their villages, set out to resolve conflict on their own — without the High Peace Council, the U.N., or NATO. “Mediation is a part of Afghan culture,” Barnett Rubin, who is now a senior fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, told me. In the Dand-e Ghori district, in the north, a feud between the Pashtuns and Persian speakers broke out over a proposed power line but soon became about other, ancient grievances. Over five trips last spring and summer, a twenty-eight-year-old Afghan American named Ali Wardak met with tribal leaders and managed to negotiate an electricity-sharing agreement. Fighting subsided. Wardak has since continued working to expand his success to the rest of the province.
The grassroots progress was encouraging, but insufficient as the broader conflict lurched to its next turning point. So far, Maulvi Haibatullah, the new Taliban leader, has been unburdened by the controversies of his predecessor and more effective at consolidating power, which has meant a diminished interest in peace. The fracturing observed under Mansour has, in places, led to alliances between militants affiliated with the Taliban and other insurgent groups, including the Islamic State. In the north, the cooperation threatens hard-fought territory and places the capital at risk. The National Unity Government has fallen into greater disarray, with ministers being fired en masse. In the fall, Ghani signed a peace agreement with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of the historically violent Hezb-e-Islami (Islamic Party), who has for twenty years remained in exile after commanding the slaughter of some 50,000 Afghans; this was meant to demonstrate the possibility of domestic accord with groups designated by the United States as terrorist organizations, yet its effects were merely theoretical, as there has been no relief from bloodshed.
On July 23, two suicide bombers struck Kabul, killing at least eighty, injuring more than 260, and usurping the title of the war’s deadliest attack. Now, each day, fifty Afghan soldiers are killed, and 180 are lost to injuries and desertions. A high-ranking Afghan security official told me that the annual casualty rate at the end of 2016 was the highest ever recorded in Afghanistan, with more than 10,000 soldiers dead, and thousands more civilians have lost their lives.
The survivors of the conflict, awaiting the next chapter of diplomacy, have no choice but to be patient.
May Jeong lives in Kabul, Afghanistan. Her work on this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.