ISLAMABAD — U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is in a hurry to find a peace deal for Afghanistan that would allow America to bring home its troops after 17 years of war, but the road ahead is littered with obstacles.
After years of U.S. insisting on talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, Khalilzad began meeting with the insurgents shortly after his appointment in September, giving into a key demand from the Taliban, who view the Kabul government as an American puppet.
President Donald Trump's frustration with the costly and interminable war, as well as reports of a U.S. plan to withdraw half of its roughly 15,000 troops by the summer, has lent a sense of urgency to Khalilzad's mission.
The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan according to a harsh version of Islamic law from 1996 to 2001 and hosted Osama bin Laden as he masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks, say they no longer seek a monopoly on power and would not pose a threat to other countries.
But many fear a full NATO withdrawal would leave the weak and corrupt Afghan government vulnerable to collapse, or unleash yet another round of fighting in a war that has already killed tens of thousands of Afghans.
Who is negotiating?
While the U.S. says it is committed to an â€œAfghan-ledâ€ process, the main talks are between Khalilzad and the Taliban's political leadership, which is based in the Gulf nation of Qatar and includes several veteran battlefield commanders.
The Taliban came to the table from a position of strength, having taken over nearly half the country. Their daily attacks on Afghan forces are so deadly that the government and the U.S. have classified Afghan casualty figures. On a few occasions, the Taliban have seized entire cities, only withdrawing in the face of Afghan counteroffensives and NATO air assaults.
The Taliban negotiators are led by Abdul Ghani Baradar, a veteran commander released by Pakistan last year after eight years in prison, apparently upon a U.S. request. He is believed to command enough respect within the movement to sell a peace deal to front-line fighters. The team also includes two of the five Taliban leaders freed from Guantanamo Bay in 2014 in exchange for a captured U.S. soldier.
Khalilzad is also meeting with Pakistan, which is widely believed to harbor the Taliban's top leadership, as well as China, India and Russia, which have an interest in stabilizing the region â€” and in expanding their influence.
What have they agreed to?
The two sides are reportedly closing in on a deal in which the U.S. would withdraw from Afghanistan in return for a Taliban promise not to allow it to be used as a launchpad for terrorist attacks. They are also reportedly discussing a cease-fire and the formation of an interim government.
Khalilzad has said that the U.S. remains committed to women's rights, the rule of law and freedom of the press, but says it will be left to the Afghans to negotiate those rights.
What about the Afghan government?
The government is rife with corruption and deeply divided along ethnic and factional lines. Its authority is largely confined to major cities, with the Taliban effectively controlling much of the countryside. The U.S. and NATO formally ended their combat mission in 2014 but still provide air support and crucial aid to Afghan forces.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who will seek re-election in July, is vehemently opposed to an interim government or further delays in elections.
But he appears to have been largely sidelined in the talks. His own peace envoy, Omer Daudzai, has been following Khalilzad across the region and meeting with the same people, apparently to keep tabs on him.
What if the Taliban take over?
Memories are still fresh of the Taliban's hard-line rule, when they forbade girlsâ€™ education and women working outside the home. But the group has struck a more conciliatory tone in recent years, and last week the Taliban called upon Afghans to â€œforget their past and tolerate one another.â€
The Taliban are militarily formidable, but it's not clear they have the numbers to overthrow the government, and the group has said it does not want a monopoly on power.
The Western-backed government, meanwhile, is widely seen as corrupt and inefficient. Afghans complain of poor public services, insecurity and widespread graft. Women secured new freedoms after 2001, but their lives are still heavily restricted in the deeply conservative country. Seventeen years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan still ranks among the worst countries in the world to be a woman.
Afghans would welcome any agreement that brings improved security and governance. But they distrust both sides given their history of repression and brutal internecine fighting. Many fear the U.S. will settle for an agreement that breaks down as soon as the last American soldier leaves, plunging the country into yet another round of civil war.
Is peace possible?
Afghanistan has been mired in war for decades, and while the U.S. and the Taliban have both claimed significant progress in the latest talks, they have yet to pen a deal.
It's unclear whether the Taliban are willing or able to crack down on other armed groups. Afghanistan is home to a vicious Islamic State affiliate that has survived clashes with both the Afghan government and the Taliban, and which might be able to recruit even more disgruntled Taliban fighters if the group is seen as caving to U.S. demands.
The U.S. says it has largely eradicated al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but senior figures, including the group's leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, and bin Laden's son, Hamza, are believed to be based in the region. Without knowing the militantsâ€™ location, or who is protecting them, it would be difficult to verify any agreement to root them out.
That would leave the U.S. in more or less the same position it was nearly two decades ago, when a small group of foreign fighters in Afghanistan plotted the 9/11 attacks.