Khalilzad testifies before US Congress in classified briefing

The US special Afghanistan envoy briefs House Foreign Affairs Committee about the failed US-Taliban talks.

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    Zalmay Khalilzad, the US peace envoy who was leading the peace talks with the Taliban [File: Sorin Furcoi/ Al Jazeera]
    Zalmay Khalilzad, the US peace envoy who was leading the peace talks with the Taliban [File: Sorin Furcoi/ Al Jazeera]

    Washington, DC - The United States special Afghanistan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad on Thursday briefed members of the US Congress behind closed doors on the failure of the US-Taliban talks.

    "In the last few weeks, we've seen the Afghan reconciliation process go off the rails in spectacular fashion," Representative Eliot Engel, the Democrat chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a public hearing after Khalilzad's appearance.

    "We've learned that the president up-ended the deal and we have learned that the peace deal evidently is dead," Engel said.

    In a series of tweets earlier this month, US President Donald Trump said he was calling off secret meetings with Taliban representatives and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at Camp David in Maryland.

    Citing a Taliban attack in Kabul in which 12 people, including a US soldier, were killed, Trump also cancelled US-Taliban negotiations led by Khalilzad that had been ongoing for months.

    Alice Wells, acting assistant secretary of state, told the Foreign Affairs Committee that the Trump administration remains committed to the long-term stability of Afghanistan despite cuts in aid. 

    "We want to be able to signal … that we are committed to the long-term development of Afghanistan but not over-committed to the point where we are assuming unreasonable or even a counterproductive level of involvement," Wells told committee in a public hearing. 

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    Separately on Thursday, the US announced it was withdrawing about $100m earmarked for an Afghan energy project and would withhold another $60m in planned assistance. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited corruption and Afghanistan's "inability to transparently manage US government resources". He added that the US would complete the energy infrastructure project, but would do so through another mechanism that does not involve giving the money directly to Afghan authorities.

    Election violence

    Afghanistan is scheduled to hold a presidential election on September 28, but the campaign season has already been rocked by violence as the Taliban vowed to disrupt the election and attack government buildings. 

    A US-backed air raid conducted by the Afghan security forces on Thursday accidentally hit farmland in Nangarhar province killing about 30 civilians and injuring 40 others, while at least 20 people were killed in Zabul province in a suicide car bomb blast claimed by the Taliban. 

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    Wells, a career foreign service officer, said US officials believe they had made significant progress in informal talks with the Taliban in Qatar in July by including Afghan government representatives and women. The US had sought to work with China and Russia on Afghanistan, she said.

    "We had broken new ground in this last round of negotiations that took place," Wells said, holding out a prospect the talks could be renewed.

    "We would like to see the Taliban take actions that would allow us to return to negotiations," she said.

    Trump had promised during his 2016 presidential campaign that he would from US troops home from Afghanistan and Democrat candidates for the upcoming 2020 election are calling for an end to the war. 

    Khalilzad's appearance before Foreign Affairs came after Engel issued a subpoena last week demanding his appearance. The committee had been seeking Khalilzad's testimony for months but was repeatedly rebuffed by Trump officials, Engel said.

    "Just to be clear, I do not take subpoenas lightly. I would not have issued this one had we not sent three letters inviting him and asking Secretary Pompeo at a hearing to send him," Engel said. "With Trump's Camp David flop, we simply could not wait any longer."

    Members of the committee said they could not discuss the substance of their meeting with Khalilzad.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News