Taliban attacks threaten to derail the already struggling Afghan peace talks aimed at allowing the full withdrawal of U.S. troops after more than 19 years of war in Afghanistan, U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said Tuesday.
“By any measure, current levels of violence are too high,” Khalilzad, the special representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, said at a hearing of the House National Security Subcommittee.
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“We know that reductions are possible” in the number of Taliban attacks on Afghan security forces and civilians, Khalilzad said in his first public testimony on the agreements reached between the U.S. and the Taliban in February and the subsequent peace talks with the Kabul government, which began Sept. 12.
Pentagon official David Helvey, who testified with Khalilzad, said the Taliban have not attacked American forces since signing the February agreements and noted that the U.S. has not suffered a combat death since then.
Under President Donald Trump’s plan to end the “endless war” in Afghanistan, the U.S. is committed to reducing troop levels to about 4.500 by November, said Helvey, who is performing the duties of assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs.
He said Defense Secretary Mark Esper has not yet committed to troop withdrawals past November, although the initial agreements with the Taliban call for the last U.S. service members to leave in May 2021.
Helvey said additional withdrawals after November would be “conditions-based” and noted the misgivings of many Americans, who may feel that the Afghan war was fought in vain.
He said there is a clear understanding at the Defense Department that the troop withdrawals and fears that the Taliban will re-establish harsh rule “cause painful emotions to resurface for the families who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, 2001, and in Afghanistan over the subsequent years. Their sacrifices are not lost on us.”
However, “there is no military solution to the conflict,” Helvey said. The decisions that led to the U.S. agreements on withdrawals with the Taliban and the peace talks that began in Doha, Qatar, were difficult but are “focused on a noble end state for which so many have fought.”
The peace talks’ goal is to achieve a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban that would enable a permanent cease-fire, Helvey said, although the meetings in Qatar have yet to produce an agreement on the “rules of negotiation” for a settlement.
At the hearing, Khalilzad was repeatedly challenged on whether the Taliban had agreed to guarantee women’s rights and the rights of girls to an education in a power-sharing arrangement, or would seek to ban work and education to women as they had before the U.S. invaded in 2001.
Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., chairman of the subcommittee, charged that priority status for women’s rights is absent from the agenda for the peace talks. The U.S. should not accept a deal that “prevents little girls from going to school,” he said.
Khalilzad responded with assurances that human rights, women’s rights and the rights of minorities are “of the highest importance to the United States.” Afghan women should know that “we are with them,” he said.
Several subcommittee members cited former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster’s recent statements that the Taliban and terrorist groups allied with them are stronger now than they were before 9/11 and would ignore any peace deal to reimpose harsh Islamic rule.
In TV appearances promoting his book “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World,” McMaster, a retired Army lieutenant general, warned that the Trump withdrawal policy would enable a Taliban takeover and again allow terrorist groups safe havens to plot attacks against the U.S. and its allies.
On CBS’ “60 Minutes” program Sunday, McMaster charged that Trump is in effect “partnering with the Taliban against, in many ways, the Afghan government.”
“And so, I think that it’s an unwise policy. And I think what we require in Afghanistan is a sustained commitment to help the Afghan government and help the Afghan security forces continue to bear the brunt of this fight,” McMaster said.
Khalilzad told the panel members who cited McMaster, “I respectfully disagree that the terrorists in Afghanistan are stronger than they were” at the time of 9/11.
He also said that the Taliban are fully aware that if they don’t deliver on their commitment to share power in a democratic government, “we don’t withdraw” U.S. troops.
— Richard Sisk can be reached at [email protected].
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