There were plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the long-awaited US-Taliban peace deal that seemed to be on the cusp of announcement before this weekend.
Critics of the agreement said that it offered too many concessions to the Taliban, while extracting few concessions. There were no pre-conditions – womens’ rights were not guaranteed, a ceasefire was not imposed, and the Afghan government had not been given a seat at the negotiating table.
Yet, after nine rounds of talks and a year of hard work, the deal was still seen by some as the US’s best chance at extracting itself from its longest running war.
Nearly 18 years after the invasion of Afghanistan, and days before the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US, the Taliban controls more territory than it has at any time in the war, despite more than 2,400 US servicemen killed and the trillions of US dollars spent.
CNN traveled to Taliban territory in February this year and spent 36 hours on the ground with the militant group and during our trip, we found few indicators that the Taliban has changed its fundamentalist, isolationist ideology in any meaningful way.
The shadow governor of one province told us that he used a smart phone and had a Facebook account but still believes that the Islamic Emirate should stone adulterers to death and cut off the hand of thieves.
Still in some areas, the group appeared to have adapted a more pragmatic and conciliatory approach.
In one village under Taliban control, we visited a clinic which was managed by the Taliban, but where the Afghan government provided the medicines and paid the salaries. Instances of cooperation between the warring parties have become more common, particularly in contested areas.
The Taliban is adamant about one key issue that is the cornerstone of any deal with the US. The group says it will never again allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists, as it had under the Taliban during the run up to the 9/11 attacks, which were carried about al Qaeda but planned in Afghanistan.
“Whether it’s the Americans or ISIS,” Shadow Governor Mawlavi Khaksar told us, “no foreign forces will be allowed in the country once we start ruling Afghanistan.”
But many question the group’s ability to keep its promise, particularly as disillusioned jihadists begin to splinter away from the central Taliban to join more extremist groups like ISIS.
And there are real fears about what would happen to women’s rights and education, once presented to Americans by the Bush administration as a key reason to stay the course in Afghanistan.
The Afghan government undoubtedly has the most to lose in these negotiations.
If the US withdraws its forces, the Afghan army will be left to fend for itself and many fear that the Taliban will seek to usurp power from the vulnerable government.
So where does Afghanistan go from here? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN’s Jake Tapper in a taping of “State of the Union” that the US is still interested in striking a peace deal, as long as the Taliban honors its commitments. In a statement put out on their Telegram channel, the Taliban also did not appear to close the door on continued talks.
But without a major climbdown from the Taliban, such as accepting a nationwide ceasefire which the group has thus far avoided, saying it gives them necessary leverage, it’s difficult to see how these talks get the same momentum up again.
That would leave US President Donald Trump with some unappealing options: One, accept the status quo and leave US troops where they are, despite promises to end the war. Or, two, pull US troops out now without a deal (and without any concessions that a deal with the Taliban would bring).