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Can the U.S. work with the Taliban in Afghanistan? That's the central question.

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WASHINGTON — In a moment of black humor amid the Afghanistan crisis, senior administration officials were discussing U.S. contacts with the Taliban regarding operations at the embattled airport. “Thank goodness we finally have a security partner in Kabul,” one senior official is said to have cracked.

That’s the paradox at the center of the Afghanistan mess: After fighting the Taliban for 20 years, the United States is now turning to it for security assistance as it tries to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies from the country. The trickiest immediate issue has been the Aug. 31 deadline for U.S. departure. The Taliban insists that date is a “red line” that can’t be crossed, and President Joe Biden has agreed to meet that demand, despite protests from some U.S. allies who think it’s too soon.

The U.S.-Taliban channel moved to a higher level this week as CIA Director William J. Burns met secretly on Monday in Kabul with Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar. Burns was delivering a personal message from Biden, who evidently has decided his best course for now is to cooperate with the former adversary.

As the Biden team struggles to craft its strategy for postwar Afghanistan, the central questions will involve its awkward relationship with the Taliban. Can this militant group ever become a reliable partner? Does the United States want to see the Taliban succeed or fail in its efforts to stabilize and rule the country? Under what conditions should Biden recognize a Taliban-led government in Kabul?

The value of a security relationship with the Taliban became clear last weekend as U.S. officials were bracing for a possible attack from Islamic State terrorists on the Kabul airport. U.S. and Taliban officials in Kabul exchanged information about the threat, according to a source familiar with events. Senior Taliban officials in Doha, Qatar, are said to have been involved in the discussions as well.

A de facto U.S.-Taliban alliance against Islamic State extremists was outlined to me more than two years ago by Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the last U.S. commander in Afghanistan. In interviews in Kabul in July 2019, Miller and his colleagues described operations in Jowzjan and Ghor provinces in the north, where U.S. counterterrorism forces had killed top Islamic State leaders and Taliban forces had then consolidated control on the ground. Earlier, the United States had waged a relentless drone campaign against Islamic State leaders in Nangarhar, in eastern Afghanistan, with the Taliban’s quiet acquiescence.

Still, cautions Carter Malkasian, a former State Department official in Afghanistan who has talked extensively with Taliban leaders, “Any relationship or partnership with the Taliban is going to be deeply frustrating for us.” He wisely recommends that the United States should condition recognition and support on the Taliban’s willingness to accept power-sharing and reconciliation — and a stronger commitment to stop al-Qaida or other groups from attacking the United States.

The United States’ past dealings with the Taliban don’t offer much hope for the future. It has been attempting to negotiate peace with the rebels since 2011. A nominal peace deal was finally signed in February 2020, and President Donald Trump’s special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said the Taliban had promised to negotiate a “permanent and comprehensive cease-fire.” That never happened. Instead, the Taliban assassinated, bribed and intimidated its way to victory.

One reason the Taliban balked at a real truce, according to Malkasian in his new history, “The American War in Afghanistan: A History,” is that its leaders feared that militant fighters would defect to the Islamic State and other radical groups. The peace deal itself was rushed and haphazard because Trump’s “impatience stampeded Khalilzad into giving a lot while the Taliban promised little and gave even less,” Malkasian writes.

The Taliban’s pledges about controlling al-Qaida are shaky, too. “On a variety of occasions, Taliban stressed to me that al-Qaida were their friends and that this was a relationship they would like to keep,” Malkasian told me during an interview this week.

Afghanistan is a deep, enduring tragedy. If you’re looking for an American hero in this story, consider the Air Force pilot who on Aug. 15 roared down a Kabul runway in a C-17 overloaded with 823 desperate Afghan evacuees, more than double its recommended capacity. Asked by his colleagues whether the plane could lift off in the intense heat with so many people aboard, the pilot is said by a U.S. official to have answered: “Just watch me.”

This humanitarian spirit, rescuing as many as possible despite the risks, represents a moment of grace and courage at the end of this grinding war. It should impress even the Taliban, which for better or worse seems fated to be our partners in the phase to come.

Distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.

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