After nearly 17 frustrating years of war, the first serious ray of hope has emerged from Afghanistan that could pave the way toward a U.S. troop withdrawal and a political settlement.
Could: Lots of uncertainties and unanswered questions remain. And a straight bugout would risk the same kind of catastrophe that followed President Barack Obama's unilateral pullout from Iraq, which rapidly produced the rise of ISIS.
Chief U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad says he's reached a draft agreement in principle under which the Taliban will guarantee not to let Afghan territory serve as a base for terrorists. That's vital: The Taliban's hosting of al Qaeda led directly to 9/11.
And the tentative accord — according to Khalilzad, though the Taliban are already talking otherwise — dictates further conditions before a full U.S. pullout.
In particular, the Taliban haven't agreed to a ceasefire before any withdrawal, which Khalilzad says is a condition of any deal moving forward. And he admits that just how any agreement is to be monitored and enforced must still be "fleshed out."
Another issue: The U.S.-backed Afghan government was not a party to the talks, and the Taliban still haven't agreed to deal with it directly. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has backed the negotiations, saying he wants "peace quickly" — but warned of the need to "not repeat past mistakes."
Right. As President Trump noted in 2017 of Obama's hasty Iraq withdrawal, "Our hard-won gains slipped back into the hands of terrorist enemies." That's why Trump set aside his initial instinct to leave Afghanistan quickly and opted to make another military effort, based on "principled realism."
Yet Americans have grown impatient with this war — and even those most committed to the effort understand that we can't forever prop up a hapless regime unwilling or unable to do its share.
Whether the Taliban will follow through remains to be seen. Certainly, Team Trump must make abundantly clear that the United States won't tolerate any terrorist resurgence.
This is only a first step toward ending America's longest war. The hope now is to achieve peace without sacrificing the goals that brought U.S. troops there in the first place.