U.S. Special Envoy for Taliban Talks Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said he believes peace is still possible in Afghanistan as began to withdraw its remaining troops and violence continues to escalate in the country.
Khalilzad testified before Congress on Tuesday, the same day the State Department advised US citizens “wishing to leave Afghanistan to leave as soon as possible” and ordered non-essential US Embassy employees to leave the country. country, claiming that “traveling to all parts of Afghanistan is insecure.”
The envoy said that maintaining US forces in Afghanistan did not make sense, as the conflict could not be resolved by continued fighting.
“The choice Afghans face is between a negotiated political settlement or a long war,” Khalilzad told skeptical US MPs in Congress.
“This opportunity confronts them once again and it’s up to them,” Khalilzad said in his first public testimony since President Joe Biden announced a decision to withdraw all American forces September 11, the 20th anniversary of the Al-Qaeda-led attacks on New York and Washington that prompted the US invasion of Afghanistan.
The United States has approximately 3,500 troops in Afghanistan alongside approximately 7,000 NATO forces and approximately 16,000 contractors. Khalilzad said the deal he signed with the Taliban last year included the agreement to withdraw US sub-contractors supporting Afghan forces on the same schedule as the exit of US troops. Khalilzad said the United States was helping the government in Kabul find contractors to replace those leaving the United States.
Biden pledged to continue US financial support for the government in Kabul and its military and police forces – around 300,000 people, but that number would be lower.
Khalilzad said the terrorist threat that led to the 2001 attacks now moved to other regions.
Khalilzad led 18 months of talks between the United States and the Taliban in 2018-19 that culminated in the Withdrawal Agreement. It was also supposed to pave the way for direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government to achieve a viable peace process, but none have emerged after a year of recurring talks.
An Afghan peace conference scheduled to be held in Turkey this month has been postponed due to the non-participation of the Taliban. The Turkish, Pakistani and Afghan foreign ministers on Friday urged the Taliban to reaffirm their commitment to negotiations and an end to violence.
Leading members of Congress offered mixed reactions to Biden’s announcement, and Senate leaders said on Tuesday they feared Biden would rush a US withdrawal.
“How we pull out and what political arrangement remains in our wake matters deeply,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat who has criticized the Biden administration’s handling of the decision.
“If the Taliban returned to power, the reality for Afghan women and girls, I think, would be devastating,” Menendez said.
When they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban banned the education of girls and largely excluded women from the workforce and from public life in general.
Khalilzad said any future support for a government that includes the Taliban will be conditional. “If they want help from the United States, they want international acceptance… these things will all be affected by how they treat their own citizens, primarily the women of Afghanistan, children and minorities,” he told senators.
Senior Republican Senator Jim Risch said the US military withdrawal should only come with guarantees for the gains the US has made in Afghanistan.
“I am deeply concerned about the administration’s rush to exit Afghanistan,” Risch said.
“I hope I am wrong, but I am afraid that the decision of the administration may lead to Taliban offensive it overthrows the government, ”he said.
“I don’t think the government is going to collapse or that the Taliban are going to take over,” Khalilzad said.
Biden said the pullout was not conditional, implying it would continue no matter what in Afghanistan.
Khalilzad’s 2019 deal with the Taliban stipulated that the group would sever all ties with al-Qaeda, while the United Nations has said the two organizations remain closely linked – which the Taliban denies.
The deal also called for all foreign forces, including US troops and contractors, to withdraw from Afghanistan by May 1 if the Taliban fulfilled their part of the deal. On April 14, Biden extended that deadline to September.