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Afghan Government, Taliban Reach Breakthrough To Proceed With Peace Talks

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The Taliban and the Afghan government have reached their first written agreement in 19 years. It's only preliminary and limited in scope. The deal essentially states that the two parties are on the same page about how to talk about talks, talks which will hammer out a broader peace deal, but it could be significant. Saad Mohseni is someone NPR has turned to for many years as a voice on Afghanistan. He runs a media conglomerate, including a TV news channel there. He does it in a nation that used to depend on state-owned radio stations broadcasting Taliban propaganda. Rachel Martin reconnected with him and asked what the agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government really means.

SAAD MOHSENI: They've only agreed on the procedures and basically the code of conduct. We still have to agree on the agenda, and then they have to actually sit down and negotiate. So we're far, far, far away from a deal.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Providing some urgency to all of this in the backdrop is the decision by the Trump administration to dramatically reduce the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan down to just, you know, roughly a couple thousand troops. What are the costs of that from an Afghan perspective?

MOHSENI: Well, you know, there was an opportunity, I think, when they had about 8,600 troops to really push the Taliban to reduce violence and also to force the Afghan government to sit down with the Taliban. That leverage just went out the window. But now with 2 1/2 thousand, there's really not much incentive for either side to actually negotiate. For the Afghan government side, they're thinking, well, we don't have much of a hope here. So let's wait for the Biden administration. And for the Taliban, they're thinking we have all the leverage, we have the momentum, confidence is high, so why do we negotiate for a deal? So it's the worst of all situations for the people of Afghanistan, unfortunately.

MARTIN: Granted, you can't make sweeping generalizations about an entire populace. But the people you know when you are home in Kabul, having conversations with your neighbors, do Afghans want a more robust U.S. presence? I mean, it's been almost 20 years now.

MOHSENI: It's not about the presence. It's about, OK, well, we all agree that the forever war cannot be won. But I think that they expect the Americans to play a positive role in terms of ensuring that we have a sustainable peace, especially one that has leverage. So their expectation, not just from the Americans but from the international community, is drawdown, leave, do it responsibly but at least leave us with something that resembles a peace deal.

MARTIN: Where are concerns over human rights in this moment? I mean, I know in conversations I've had with Afghans, there are worries that the hard-fought battles for education for girls, women's rights, freedom of speech, which is something near and dear to your heart, that those would suffer some diminishment, if not full rollbacks, if the Taliban through these negotiations is given a broader berth, more control in a power-sharing deal.

MOHSENI: Absolutely. I mean, you know, we had a situation last week. A district was overtaken by the Taliban. And the first thing they did was they allowed for the destruction of the school. You know, desks were taken away, the building was destroyed. So that's a sign of things if they were to take over. The Taliban leadership in Doha is obviously very different to the command that's on the ground. And the assumption that these people have changed I think is a bit naive. The interesting thing is a lot of progressives in the U.S. are calling for a draw down of U.S. troops, oblivious to what's going to happen to minorities and women, for example.

MARTIN: The original impetus for the war in Afghanistan is obviously al-Qaida, and the threat evolved to be preventing Afghanistan from being a stronghold for ISIS. I mean, if - is the Afghan government capable of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist stronghold again?

MOHSENI: Absolutely not. This sort of rush out the door has ensured the Taliban really don't have to fear anything. And for them, there's no reason to really go and sever their ties, in particular with al-Qaida.

MARTIN: So then where does this leave someone like you? You know, I met you almost 20 years ago when you had just come back to Kabul. You had been living in Australia, and you had just returned to Afghanistan to come home, as so many Afghan diaspora did. What does it mean to you to see it teetering on the edge like this in this moment as the stability that the U.S. military has provided, as that is about to end?

MOHSENI: Well, it's heartbreaking because, you know, we've seen this country really develop. People criticize the government we've had, the politicians. But the people themselves have been innocent bystanders and the country really has changed - women, the role of women, the urbanization of Afghanistan, how the country has really developed in the last two decades. And unfortunately, you know, the Americans leave and the Afghan politicians go away with their millions, but the people will be left to fend for themselves, and particularly Afghan women and minorities. And of course, for us, I mean, you know, I'm an Afghan and Australian with a foreign passport. I can - I have the option of leaving. But my 600-odd employees, what happens to these people? And it's a very sad situation. I mean, the best-case scenario would be a civil war. The worst-case scenario would be a takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. So it's a sort of a lose-lose situation for the people of Afghanistan.

MARTIN: Wait. You think the best outcome, the least harmful outcome right now in Afghanistan is a civil war.

MOHSENI: I think that if there's a rush out the door, there will be a civil war. Yes, absolutely.

MARTIN: Saad Mohseni, founder of Tolo TV. Saad, thank you so much for your perspective in this moment. We appreciate it.

MOHSENI: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNAL HILL'S "A SECRET SOCIETY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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