MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
All right. How to reconcile two developments - both yesterday, both involving the Taliban. The first, word that the Taliban and the U.S. have reached an agreement in principle that could pave the way for the withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was on Afghan TV last night, doing an interview announcing all this. And even as that interview was unfolding came development number two, a bomb going off in Kabul that killed at least 16 people. And the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
So just who exactly is the U.S. negotiating with in these peace talks? To help us understand the Taliban in 2019, we turn to Kathy Gannon. She's a senior correspondent for The Associated Press. She has covered the region for three decades.
Kathy Gannon, welcome.
KATHY GANNON: Thank you so much, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So let's start right there, trying to reconcile a group that says it's inching towards some sort of peace agreement and is also setting off bombs in Kabul on the same day. What's going on?
GANNON: There are a couple of things going on. I think, for sure, that they're very close to an agreement, but there was always the issue that there would be increased violence as it got close to the agreement. I think this is the Taliban saying, we're not coming into this from a position of weakness. And I think that message is as much for their own foot soldiers as it is for their partners in whatever agreement that is finally reached - partners being the other Afghans, members of the government, members of the civil society and the United States.
KELLY: How much of Afghanistan does the Taliban control right now?
GANNON: Well, I mean, I think that's a hard one to answer, to tell you the truth. The government, it is said, controls maybe around 50%. The remainder of the country - does the Taliban control that? No, but they control large swaths, and they certainly hold sway in a great deal of the country.
KELLY: Is the Taliban of today the same organization as it was in 2001, when the U.S. first went into Afghanistan?
GANNON: No, I think it's different. It's different in that they understand that they have to accept that girls, for example, will go to school, women will work, that they have...
KELLY: They do understand that, you believe.
GANNON: They do understand that. And yes, they are religious. Yes, they are conservative. But Afghanistan is also a conservative country. So the Taliban are very much representative of rural Afghanistan.
KELLY: What about what is known about links between the Taliban and al-Qaida or other terrorist organizations - which is, of course, what led the U.S. to invade in 2001...
KELLY: ...Was the Taliban had been harboring the leader of al-Qaida.
GANNON: Sure, exactly. And those links still exist, and that's why this negotiation where the Taliban are to guarantee that areas that they hold sway will not be used as an area where attacks against other countries can be launched is so critical. And the details will be very important to note.
KELLY: So let me end by circling back to where we began - news of the bombing yesterday in Kabul. There was also news over the weekend of a deadly attack in Kunduz, Afghanistan, that the Taliban also claimed credit for. What impact do those have on these peace talks? Do they risk derailing things?
GANNON: My understanding is that they won't derail. The hard task - intra-Afghan negotiations - I think, will go ahead. That's the Taliban sitting down with the civil society, with representatives of the government and hammering out what will be the future face of Afghanistan. It might make those intra-Afghan negotiations even more testy, even more difficult, but I don't see that it will derail an agreement that includes that intra-Afghan negotiations.
KELLY: Kathy Gannon of The Associated Press, thank you very much.
GANNON: Thank you very much, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.