Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad testified before the US House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on National Security about the Trump administration’s Afghanistan policy on Tuesday and said that the US will protect its interests in all circumstances in Afghanistan and that the Afghan people will suffer if there is no peace settlement.
Asked if the Taliban will honor the US-Taliban agreement if US troops are leaving and cannot enforce it, Khalilzad said the reduction in US troops does not mean the US forces cannot carry out their mission. A re-evaluation will be necessary when troops get down to 4-5,000, he said, adding: "I believe we are committed to the terms of the agreement."
“We are on the path to reduce troop levels to between 4,000 and 5,000 by this fall and further withdrawals will be determined based on conditions on the ground and delivery by the Taliban on their commitments,” Khalilzad said.
The Taliban have made some "positive steps" in breaking ties with Al Qaeda, but they still have some distance to go in honoring their commitments, said Khalilzad, adding that the US withdrawal will be contingent on whether they can deliver on their promises.
“It is also important to stress that since the signing of the agreement, the Taliban has instructed its forces to refrain from attacks on US or coalition forces,” Khalilzad said. “There have been no American deaths as a result of Taliban attacks since the agreement was signed. And we continue to engage regularly with the Taliban...to oversee the implementation of our agreement with respect to these issues and to address issues of concern.”
Khalilzad said that the situation must be arranged so that it is in the best interest of the Taliban to honor the agreement--in terms of continued support and improved international relationships--rather than to rely on trust.
Asked if the rights of Afghan women are a priority, Khalilzad said the rights of this group and others are a "high priority" for the US government.
Khalilzad said that peace negotiators are under pressure from the Afghan people to make the talks work, that the majority of Afghans want peace--and Afghan women want peace--and that the US will help with the talks if participants need it, but it is the Afghans' responsibility.
“The Afghan delegations from the parties to the conflict that are sitting across from each other without international mediators or facilitators have the opportunity to bring an end to more than 40 years of war in their country,” Khalilzad said, adding that “The talks are an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process where two warring sides are negotiating a roadmap for the future of their country. Afghans are yearning for peace and there is overwhelming support among the Afghans for these talks and for a political settlement.”
He also said that the Taliban agreed that “a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire” would be on the agenda in intra-Afghan negotiations.”
The level of violence in Afghanistan is unacceptably high in Afghanistan and the US expects further setbacks during talks, Khalilzad said.
“By any measure, current levels of violence are too high,” Khalilzad said, adding that “We know that reductions are possible; the Taliban carried out two Eid ceasefires and, earlier, a seven-day reduction in violence preceding the February 29 agreement between the United States and the Taliban in preparation for negotiations.”
“We hope that the negotiations will soon lead to a significant reduction in violence by all sides, reducing the number of Afghans getting killed or wounded. A reduction of violence will help build the trust necessary for talks to succeed. We will continue to press for this,” he mentioned.
Khalilzad believes that a political settlement in Afghanistan needs broad internal, regional and international support.
“We have worked closely with Afghanistan’s neighbors and international partners to build support for Afghanistan Peace Negotiations. You can see the impact of that effort in the list of countries and organizations that were represented at the opening ceremony of Afghan peace negotiations on September 12,” he further added.
Khalilzad also said that he urged the Afghan leaders to take advantage of the opportunity for a political settlement now available to them.
“Unfortunately, Afghan leaders did not behave responsibly or judiciously after the Soviet forces departed their country as a result of a resistance movement that had been backed by the United States. Instead of cooperating and agreeing on a political formula for their country, they started a vicious civil war. We will help Afghanistan seize this historic moment and avoid repeating what happened in the 1990s, but ultimately the responsibility is theirs,” he said.
The Taliban and the Afghan government are blaming each other for conducting big operations against each other and ramping up violence.
The Afghan government said the Taliban has initiated at least 7,000 military attacks over the last six months, which have killed and wounded nearly 3,500 civilians. But the Taliban rejected these numbers, saying that the government’s major operations in nine provinces have increased the conflicts with the group.
The remarks by Khalilzad come amid the ongoing negotiations in Doha that have made slow progress over the last 10 days despite meetings between the contact groups of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and Taliban.
The two sides are discussing 20-article rules and regulations for the peace negotiations. The two contact groups are expected to hold more meetings this week to finalize the procedure and then work on the agenda for the talks.