The United States’ special envoy for talks with the Taliban, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, has said he believes peace is still possible in Afghanistan as US begins withdrawing its remaining troops and violence continues to escalate in the country.
Khalilzad testified to Congress on Tuesday, the same day the State Department advised US citizens “wishing to depart Afghanistan should leave as soon as possible” and ordered non-essential US embassy workers to leave the country, saying “travel to all areas of Afghanistan is unsafe”.
The envoy said keeping US forces in Afghanistan did not make sense, as the conflict could not be solved by continued fighting.
“The choice that the Afghans face is between a negotiated political settlement or a long war,” Khalilzad told sceptical US legislators in Congress.
“That opportunity is once again confronting them and it’s up to them,” Khalilzad said in his first public testimony since President Joe Biden announced a decision to withdraw all US forces by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaeda-directed attacks on New York and Washington that prompted the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.
The US has about 3,500 troops in Afghanistan alongside about 7,000 NATO forces as well as about 16,000 contractors. Khalilzad said the deal he signed with the Taliban last year includes the agreement to withdraw US contractors supporting Afghan forces on the same timetable as the US troop exit. Khalilzad said the US is helping the Kabul government find contractors to replace the departing American ones.
Biden has pledged to continue US financial support for the government in Kabul and its military and police forces – reportedly about 300,000 but that number is believed to be lower.
Khalilzad said the “terrorism” threat that led to the 2001 attacks has now moved to other regions.
Khalilzad led 18-months of talks between the US and the Taliban in 2018-19 that resulted in the withdrawal agreement. It was also supposed to pave the way for direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government aimed at achieving a viable peace process but none has emerged after a year of on-again, off-again talks.
An Afghan peace conference that was due to be held in Turkey this month has been postponed because the Taliban has stayed away. The Turkish, Pakistani and Afghan foreign ministers on Friday urged the Taliban to reaffirm its commitment to negotiations and an end to violence.
Leading members of Congress have offered mixed reactions to Biden’s announcement and Senate leaders said on Tuesday they are concerned Biden is rushing a US withdrawal.
“How we withdraw and what political arrangement is left in our wake matters deeply,” said Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat who has been critical of the Biden administration’s handling of the decision.
“If the Taliban were to come back to power, the reality for Afghanistan’s women and girls, I think, would be devastating,” said Menendez.
When they ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001 the Taliban forbade education for girls and largely kept women out of the workforce and public life in general.
Khalilzad said any future support of a government that included the Taliban would be conditional. “If they do want US assistance, they want international acceptance … those things will be all affected by how they treat their own citizens, first and foremost the women of Afghanistan, children and minorities,” he told the senators.
Senator Jim Risch, the senior Republican, said the US military withdrawal should proceed only with safeguards for the gains the US has made in Afghanistan.
“I have deep concerns about the administration’s rush for the exits in Afghanistan,” Risch said.
“I hope I’m wrong, but I’m concerned that the administration’s decision may result in a Taliban offensive that topples the government,” he said.
“I do not believe the government is going to collapse or the Taliban is going to take over,” Khalilzad said.
Biden has said the withdrawal is not based on any conditions, implying it will go ahead whatever happens in Afghanistan.
The 2019 agreement Khalilzad signed with the Taliban stipulated the group would break all ties with al-Qaeda, while the United Nations has said the two organisations remain closely linked – which the Taliban denies.
The agreement had also said all foreign forces including US troops and contractors would withdraw from Afghanistan by May 1 if the Taliban fulfilled its part of the deal. On April 14 Biden extended that deadline until September.