Afghan violence 'too high' says US as Kabul-Taliban talks falter

In 10 days of talks, the government and the insurgents appear only to have agreed that they are diametrically opposed on almost all major issues

FILE PHOTO: U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad speaks during a debate at Tolo TV channel in Kabul, Afghanistan April 28, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo
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The level of violence in Afghanistan is unacceptably high and the United States expects further setbacks during talks, the Special Representative for Afghanistan said on Tuesday, as the Afghan government and Taliban remain far apart on even the most basic issues 10 days into talks meant to end two decades of war.

"By any measure, current levels of violence are too high," US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad told a House of Representatives hearing.

"We know that reductions are possible," Mr Khalilzad said.

Despite the difficulties, the talks are the best hope for peace in years and come as a result of a February pact between the Taliban and the United States, allowing US forces to withdraw in exchange for Taliban promises on terrorism.

But the militant group has refused to agree to a ceasefire and the war is grinding on. At least 57 members of the security forces have been killed in recent days in clashes across Afghanistan.

With all foreign troops due to be gone by May 2021, pressure is building on the US-backed government in Kabul as it grapples with how to share power with its implacable foe or contend with a likely Taliban push for military victory.

Since the spotlight faded from the lavish September 12 opening ceremony in Doha, attended by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the two sides have only confirmed that they are diametrically opposed on virtually every issue.

"While we have reasons to be hopeful, we are under no illusions about the challenges ahead ... We expect that there will be setbacks and obstacles," Mr Khalilzad said.

The United States is expected to reduce troop levels to 4,000 to 5,000 in the coming months and will look at further reductions based on conditions.

David Helvey, who is performing the duties of assistant secretary of defence for Indo-Pacific security affairs, told the subcommittee hearing focusing on national security the Pentagon was carrying out "prudent planning" to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by May 2021 if conditions were met.

He added that for now, Defence Secretary Mark Esper had not issued any orders to go below 4,000 troops.