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WASHINGTON — President Biden’s chief diplomat for peace negotiations in Afghanistan says he disagrees with those who predict the Afghan government will fall to the Taliban following the departure of U.S. troops.
“I do not believe that the government is going to collapse and the Taliban is going to take over,” Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, said Tuesday afternoon. “I believe the choice that Afghans face is between a negotiated political settlement or a long war.”
Khalilzad’s optimistic prediction is conditioned on a number of unpredictable factors, such as the Taliban’s willingness to engage in ongoing peace negotiations and diplomatic processes, particularly after the U.S. withdraws its troops by Sept. 11 of this year.
In the meantime, the Taliban is already publicly celebrating victory, a conclusion even some in the U.S. government appear to agree with. Earlier this month, the intelligence community predicted that “prospects for a peace deal will remain low during the next year” as the Taliban is likely to “make gains” on the battlefield while “the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”
Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee pressed Khalilzad during a hearing Tuesday afternoon to explain how the Biden administration plans to push for peace in the country after U.S. troops leave.
“Fulsome engagement by the United States will be necessary in the years ahead,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey and the chairman of the committee. Congress must “examine the implications” of Biden’s decision to withdraw “for U.S. national security interests in the region and what it means for the people of Afghanistan,” he continued.
Even with its troops leaving the country, the U.S. still has diplomatic and humanitarian interests in Afghanistan, and has committed to providing support to the Afghan government and military. Now it’s a matter of determining how to proceed.
“We want to negotiate from a position of as much strength and leverage as we can,” said Mike Hayes, who previously served as the commanding officer of SEAL Team Two in southeastern Afghanistan. Hayes, now the chief digital transformation officer at VMware, recently published a book about his life as a Navy SEAL commander titled “Never Enough.”
The U.S. government will have to make decisions about how to handle any future military requests, such as airstrikes, from the Afghan military, as well as how to dole out aid, he explained. “What is our policy if we don’t have eyes on the ground and they’re calling for military help?” he asked. Plus, “hanging the aid carrot in front of Afghanistan is going to be enticing for our policymakers,” he continued, but “the question is why,” particularly as graft and misuse increase without the U.S. presence overseeing aid.
While imminent threats from Afghanistan have diminished, following years of war and counterterrorism operations, concerns remain.
Lawmakers and experts, even those who support Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, have expressed concern that a U.S. departure will only allow for al-Qaida to flourish, particularly given the Taliban’s reported continued close ties to extremists, despite assurances to U.S. negotiators during peace discussions in Doha, Qatar, that it would stop cooperating with terrorist groups.
“My fear is that Afghanistan will become a dangerous blind spot,” said Sen. James Risch, a Republican from Idaho and the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Khalilzad, who also brokered the February 2020 peace deal signed in Doha with the Taliban under President Donald Trump, painted an optimistic portrait of the future of Afghanistan once U.S. troops leave.
“We will maintain substantial assets in the region and will continue to work closely with Afghan security forces and regional partners. ... We will continue our diplomatic support for the peace process,” he said. “It’s time for all concerned to abandon the negative patterns of behavior that have complicated the pursuit of peace.”
When pressed on whether the Taliban planned to take over the country and reestablish an Islamic emirate, Khalilzad stressed that “they have changed since the dark days when they ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.” Plans to unilaterally take control of the government would be interrupted by “a long war” fought by Afghans who “do not support the restoration of an emirate back in Afghanistan,” he said.
Despite top-level commitments by the Biden administration to remain engaged in the diplomatic process, the State Department announced Tuesday a “departure from U.S. Embassy Kabul of U.S. government employees whose functions can be performed elsewhere,” given ongoing violence and terrorism in the country.
That announcement was part of the embassy adjusting to ongoing priorities, Khalilzad told senators, though he acknowledged that the decision was likely made in part due to an increase in violence in Kabul.
Khalilzad also defended the Trump-era peace deal he negotiated, which has faced criticism for being rushed and for failing to include the release of American civil engineer Mark Frerichs, who is being held by the Taliban-linked Haqqani network. Khalilzad said that given the circumstances — that Trump wanted to leave Afghanistan — “the agreement we struck was the best possible.”
None of the lawmakers on the committee asked Khalilzad about the role of Frerichs’s release in ongoing peace negotiations, though Khalilzad committed in his opening statement to bringing him home, an effort supported by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“I have repeatedly demanded the Taliban release Mark Frerichs,” Khalilzad said. “I enlisted the support of senior Qatari and Pakistani officials on his behalf. They must know that to move forward they cannot continue to hold an American hostage.”
According to Khalilzad, the U.S. government is also currently working on contingency plans for an influx of refugees, and is considering increasing the number of special immigrant visa slots, which have helped Afghan translators working for the U.S. government. Delays in processing those visas have been an ongoing issue.
“We don’t have a good history of taking care of those who have sided with us in conflict,” said Menendez. “That sends a message: ‘Don’t side with Americans, because when they’re finished they leave you behind.’”
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