US Afghan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad wants peace deal before July vote

He stressed that any US troop withdrawal would be dependent on conditions on the ground

Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad pauses while speaking about the prospects for peace, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019, at the U.S. Institute of Peace, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
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The US envoy charged with negotiating a potential peace deal with the Taliban has said that he hopes to seal an agreement before Afghan voters go to the polls in July.

Zalmay Khalilzad, a former ambassador to Afghanistan who has spoken extensively with the Taliban in recent weeks, also stressed that any US troop withdrawal would be dependent on conditions on the ground, and not on any particular timetable.

In an honest account of his view about the prospects for peace, delivered to an audience at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, he cautioned he did not trust America's long-time adversary.

"We are in the early stage of a protracted process," he said. "We have a long way to go."

The talks come as President Donald Trump pushes to end the Afghanistan conflict, where about 14,000 US troops are still deployed and which has seen countless thousands of civilian and military deaths.

"The timing of a peace settlement from our point of view is the sooner is better," Mr Khalilzad said.

"There is an election, I know, that makes reaching a peace agreement particularly complicated. But it will be better for Afghanistan if we could get a peace agreement before the election."

He said an American withdrawal from Afghanistan was not the main aim of the talks, but to bring an end to the country's 17-year war. "My overall goal is, at the direction of the president and the secretary of state, not to seek a withdrawal agreement but a peace agreement," he said.

Elections in Afghanistan had originally been slated for April 20 but were postponed for three months as peace talks progressed. President Ashraf Ghani, who was elected in a fraud-tainted poll in 2014, is seeking a second term.

Mr Khalilzad last week announced a "draft framework" for a peace deal, though he warned that major hurdles remain.

Critics are skeptical for a number of reasons, primarily because talks have not yet included the Afghan government, which the Taliban considers US-backed puppets.

Additionally, the Taliban have promised not to shelter foreign extremists, but experts say they cannot be trusted and even now are helping to hide such militants.

Mr Khalilzad repeatedly stressed the US would not leave Afghanistan without enforcement mechanisms in place to ensure Afghanistan does not become a militant safe haven.

"Our vision long term is for an Afghanistan that's entirely sovereign, independent. If they decide that they don't want to have foreign troops, we don't want to stay where we are not wanted - provided that there is no threat to our national security from Afghanistan," Khalilzad said.

epaselect epa07348206 Former Taliban militants surrender their weapons during a reconciliation ceremony in Herat, Afghanistan, 06 February 2019. A group of ten former Taliban militants from Gozara district surrendered  their weapons in Herat on 06 February and joined the peace process. Under an amnesty launched by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and backed by the US in November 2004, hundreds of anti-government militants have surrendered to the government.  EPA/JALIL REZAYEE

"That is a red line, and I think that's a policy of the (US) president as well."

Mr Khalilzad has in recent months held multiple meetings with Taliban officials in Qatar, where the group's senior leaders have an office in the capital Doha.

The Taliban told him they realise Afghanistan is different from when they were ousted in 2001 – when the hardline Islamists subjugated women, barred girls from school and wiped out any number of freedoms.

Taliban leaders this week spent two days in talks in Moscow for an extraordinary summit that saw Afghan political figures from outside the government meeting with former sworn enemies.

All parties agreed to support the Doha peace talks with US negotiators that Mr Trump on Tuesday described as "constructive."

A statement issued on behalf of all parties also agreed on the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. But such a move is up to the Americans.

Mr Khalilzad on Thursday took to Twitter to deny a Taliban claim that a withdrawal timetable was in place.

While the US is not seeking permanent military bases in Afghanistan, "our presence is conditions-based, our withdrawal is conditions-based," he told the Washington audience, speaking with a scratchy voice after "42 hours of talking with the Taliban".

He added that he welcomed Moscow's role in talks.

"I am not seeking to monopolise the diplomacy of peace," he said, and also offered rare praise to Pakistan, which he credited for helping push the Taliban to the negotiating table.

He said that he sees himself as a "catalyst" to find a formula for Afghans to sit down with each other and work out a roadmap for a peaceful future. He said he wants those intra-Afghan negotiations to start immediately.