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Afghanistan. Peace talks with the Taliban are scheduled for next week in Kabul. But with the government’s position weakening and populist extremism swelling, will anything come of it?

Taliban negotiations ‘must go on’

A group of four countries trying to broker peace with the Taliban met Monday for the first time and agreed to push negotiations into Kabul. The Quadrilateral Coordination Committee — Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States — set its next meeting for Kabul in a week, saying a peace deal with the Taliban must go ahead. But will it actually? We’ll see.

At the table were Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry and adviser Sartaj Aziz; Afghanistan’s deputy foreign minister Khalil Hekmat Karzai; and the American and Chinese special envoys, Richard Olson and Deng Xijun. Behind the scenes is the powerful head of the Pakistani armed forces, Raheel Sharif, the architect of these new negotiations.

Everyone is favorable to the peace process except, for now, the Taliban. The first meeting between the government and the Islamist group was held in July in Pakistan, but everything collapsed after the announcement of the death of Mullah Omar and internal disputes erupted about whether to participate. Then mounting anti-Pakistan sentiment in Afghanistan led to a wave of bombings and massacres, often without claim, and it took months to mend the breach.

Now at least there’s an agreement in principle and a road map for Jan. 18, along with possibly a top-secret list of Taliban willing to negotiate. Among them is likely the head, Mullah Mansour, who is considered more malleable than Omar. But these are unconfirmed inferences.

On the eve of the Islamabad summit, meanwhile, yet another report came to light on the military situation. The German magazine Der Spiegel came into possession of a secret NATO file that completely contrasts a report from the Pentagon to Congress late last year. It pulls no punches in describing the Afghan security forces as unable to deal with the Taliban threat. Spiegel writes that, according to the alliance, just one of the 101 infantry battalions is ready for combat and that 10 battalions aren’t able to operate at all.

The Taliban have control of ever-larger slices of the country, while the number of deaths continues to grow. In 2015, there were just over 8,000 military casualties in Afghanistan (an average of 22 per day), an increase of 42 percent over the previous year, according to the report.

It’s not clear why the Pentagon report was so much more moderate in judgment. But one wonders if the “top secret” report ended up in the newspapers to pressure member countries into committing more troops to NATO’s Resolute Support mission.

But whatever the reports say, the problem exists. On Monday the president of Afghanistan’s parliamentary security commission, Mirdad Nejrabi, accused the government of not being able to handle the war. That accusation was accompanied by the revelation from Karim Atal, head of Helmand’s provincial council, that 40 percent of the soldiers supposedly stationed in the area are “ghosts” — literally and figuratively — collecting salaries without performing any duties.

And there’s still President Ashraf Ghani, under the gun for setting up commissions of inquiry that do nothing. A panel established to explain the fall of Kunduz to the Taliban last year has yet to produce any report. It will be a tough winter and spring, with a dry season likely to lead to more military and political trouble.