WASHINGTON — The U.S. special negotiator for Afghanistan said Washington is seeking a peace agreement and not a “withdrawal agreement” from the war-plagued nation, and faces “a long agenda of issues that must be addressed” before reaching that point.
Zalmay Khalilzad, in for his first public event since becoming the special representative last fall, said the “agreement in principle on a framework” for further talks is just the first step in “a long journey.”
“We will engage the Taliban further to flush out these commitments,” Khalizad said in remarks Friday at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “A possible withdrawal (of U.S. troops from Afghanistan) is part of the package deal.”
Khalilzad said the two first issues of discussion — ensuring there is no terrorism threat from groups hiding Afghanistan and a withdrawal of foreign troops — were atop the U.S. and Taliban lists respectively for dialogue.
“Even if we made progress on these two, a peace agreement would not be reached immediately…without progress on other issues,” he said. “Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to.”
Khalilzad said the U.S. is also engaged in talks with the Afghan government and it is his hope the parallel talks can merge soon. He said the key questions on areas such as press freedom, women’s right — all the gains made by Afghanistan since 2001 — can only be resolved in intra-Afghan talks.
“They will (create) a roadmap to the future for Afghanistan,” Khalilzad said. “All sides tell me they have learned the lessons on the past.”
He noted that while the Taliban would be part of the political process they would not be the government of Afghanistan. Thus, gains made in human rights and other areas would not immediately shift or end because of a peace agreement.
“The message they have given me is they understand they cannot go back,” Khalilzad said. That noted, Khalilzad said, that “we do not trust the words” and “we will be watchful.”
Some have voiced concerns about the direction of the talks.
Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said, “There’s no indication the administration has thought through this at any level. They just want to get out,” according to news reports. And, he added, “In getting out, it’s just not going to be very pretty.”
Khalilzad said that even though the Taliban acknowledges they cannot win militarily, they refuse to accept a ceasefire because their attacks are what they see as their only tool to put pressure on Kabul to get concessions.
Khalilzad said his goal is to get an agreement before the July elections scheduled for Afghanistan and to bring the Taliban into the electoral process. However, if there is no agreement he said the elections will take place as scheduled.
As he begun his remarks, Khalilzad apologized for the hoarseness in his voice. “This is what 42 hours of talking with the Taliban can do to you.”