US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, speaking at a virtual event hosted by the US Institute of Peace (USIP) on Thursday, spoke optimistically about the peace talks but acknowledged there were challenges ahead.
Asked about the current increase of violence in the country, he said: "We know that a reduction in violence is possible.”
Khalilzad pointed to the two Eid cease-fires over the past year to make the point that if there is a will for a ceasefire, one can be implemented.
At the same time, he acknowledged that the Taliban see violence as a key leverage point in the negotiations and are thus unlikely to agree to a comprehensive ceasefire early in the process.
Before this, Khalilzad told the US House of Representatives Oversight Committee that violence in Afghanistan has risen to “unacceptable levels.”
Khalilzad said this “decreases confidence in the peace process,” adding that the Taliban would “pay the price” with the Afghan people if they don’t reduce violence levels.
The Afghan peace negotiations that began in Doha on September 12 are a “historic opportunity” that could end four decades of conflict in the country and end America’s longest war, said Khalilzad.
At the USIP event, Khalilzad said the ongoing talks are the “heart of the Afghan peace process,” and “it's important to be fully aware of the significance of this moment, and to recognize its historic relevance.”
He said there is hope but still a long road ahead, with many thorny issues to be negotiated.
Khalilzad also said that for peace to work in Afghanistan, it also has to have broad regional and international support. To this end, “we have focused in parallel both on the Afghans and on the international community...to achieve peace,” he said.
Peace and stability are the preconditions to significant economic growth and international investment in Afghanistan, he said adding that “economic growth and investment, in turn, are essential to preserving the deepening peace, security and social development.”
The negotiations require true courage and sincere Afghan-to-Afghan reconciliation. “This key step puts agency with the Afghans, which is the only way for it to succeed,” said Khalilzad.
Khalilzad said at the US Institute of Peace that “We will work with our international partners to continue to press on the rights of women, and of religious and ethnic minorities. ... While the ultimate political settlement is one for the Afghans themselves to decide, the United States and the international community are deeply committed to human rights and women's rights.”
The Afghans must negotiate a solution that “suits their history and their culture. But we have made it clear we expect the women of Afghanistan to have their voices heard … The international community expects the same,” he said.
Khalilzad said that the US believes that a stable Afghanistan at peace at home and with its neighbors is not just an Afghan priority, but in the interest of the United States, the region, and the international community.
“We could have withdrawn, we didn't need anyone's permission to leave if that's all what we wanted to do,” he said in his closing remarks. “But the purpose of our diplomacy has been—and the reason for making that conditional—has been to leave a good legacy behind to help Afghans.”
On Tuesday, speaking at the US House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on National Security about the Trump administration’s Afghanistan policy, Khalilzad 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."