WASHINGTON—Major obstacles remain before the first concrete steps can be taken to end the war in Afghanistan, a top U.S. envoy said Friday after months of talks with the Taliban.
The envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, outlined two major sticking points between the U.S. and the Taliban, including the terms of a cease-fire and talks with the Afghan government.
The Taliban want the U.S. to withdraw its forces before agreeing to a cease-fire. The U.S. wants a cease-fire to increase confidence that both sides are committed to negotiating a peace deal.
The Taliban fear that any lull in fighting will undermine their position and make it difficult to regain their momentum on the battlefield, said Mr. Khalilzad, speaking Friday at the U.S. Institute for Peace, a think tank.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, an independent watchdog agency, said last month the Afghan government controls or influences little more than half the country. The U.S. said it has spent $ 132 billion on reconstruction since 2002, with over half going to the Afghan army and police forces.
A second main point of disagreement is the Taliban’s refusal to engage directly with the Afghan government to avoid giving the Kabul government legitimacy, said Mr. Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, who also served under the Bush administration during the U.S. invasion in 2001.
“We would like the inter-Afghan dialogue to start right away,” he said, in his first public appearance since taking the job in September.
The Taliban want to wait until after a presidential election is held in July. The election date has already been postponed once to allow talks to progress.
The U.S. wants to avoid a messy election that could lead to a disputed result. After the 2014 vote, the results were never formally announced and the two sides agreed to a U.S.-brokered peace-sharing deal.
Mr. Khalilzad didn’t address how the U.S. would proceed if the Taliban continue to refuse to talk to the Afghan government until a vote is held. People familiar with the process have said that forming a caretaker government to talk to the Taliban is one option.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who is seeking another five-year term in office, has been excluded from months of U.S. talks with the Taliban in Doha, despite repeatedly calling for face-to-face talks.
Mr. Ghani also was kept out of a separate process hosted by the Russians this week, which brought together members of the opposition led by the former Afghan president and the Taliban.
Peace efforts have gained momentum since President Trump took office after years of stop-start efforts. Mr. Trump repeatedly has criticized long-running wars and said he would bring U.S. troops home from war zones in Syria and Afghanistan.
Mr. Khalilzad insisted the U.S. doesn’t plan to leave Afghanistan regardless of the outcome of the talks and that President Trump views the risk of terrorist attacks being plotted on the country’s soil seriously. Counterterrorism is a “red line” for Mr. Trump, he said.
He avoided addressing a question from the audience on whether the U.S. would leave any troops behind as part of a peace settlement.
“We’re not seeking permanent bases in Afghanistan,” he said, adding that it would be up to the Afghans to decide. “We do not want to stay where we are not wanted.”
Mr. Khalilzad also skirted a question about the fate of women, who haven’t been included in talks and were banned from public life when the Taliban were in power from 1996-2001.
“They say they made a mistake with how they treated women the last time,” Mr. Khalilzad said.
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