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Talks with the Taliban: Can Afghanistan set an example?

The Afghan government held its first-ever talks with the Taliban, and if a second round occurs in coming days, a strong precedent may be set for negotiating peace with violent Islamic groups.

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    Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, right, speaks as Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif listens during a May 12 press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan.
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The usual Western strategy for dealing with Islamic terrorists is to kill them. President Obama vows to crush Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The United States helps African nations repel groups like Boko Haram. It uses drones to strike Al Qaeda operatives in any country. “Negotiations cannot convince Al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms,” Mr. Obama stated in 2009.

But on July 7, the Afghan government held its first-ever talks with the Taliban with the assistance of the US, Pakistan, and China. The talks were held outside Islamabad, Pakistan. A second set of talks is planned in coming days, if conditions can be met for further negotiations. The realities in and around Afghanistan point to the possibility of a negotiated peace for a country torn by decades of war, most of it driven by Islamic radical groups.

High hurdles remain for a deal between the government of President Ashraf Ghani and the often-divided Taliban. Pakistan plays a big role while China brings a new mediating role. The Afghan Army must better show its mettle as a cohesive fighting force. Obama may need to recalculate his planned withdrawal of US forces.

Most of all, the Taliban must be convinced that their vision for Afghanistan would best be achieved without force and within the framework of the country’s constitutional democracy. The very fact that the group’s leaders are now willing to engage in negotiations shows an understanding of the need to use persuasion rather than bombs and bullets to achieve political results.

The West’s 14-year effort to build a pluralistic Afghanistan, especially in honoring women’s rights, may be paying off. Afghans are gaining a stronger national identity, the best defense against the Taliban. Last year’s election of Mr. Ghani, a pragmatic former World Bank official, may have been a game changer.

Another factor is in play. The Taliban are worried that Islamic State has gained a toehold in Afghanistan, challenging what little legitimacy the Taliban still hold. If this competition between violent Islamist groups results in one group using dialogue to end the conflict, then a model may be set for elsewhere, such as in the Middle East. The usual strategy of killing could eventually be unusual.

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