It would be best for Afghanistan if a peace agreement is reached before elections scheduled for July, the USA envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said on Friday. But he also stressed that many issues remain to be resolved and that it must be a package deal.
Zalmay Khalilzad, a former ambassador to Afghanistan who has spoken extensively with the Taleban in recent weeks, also stressed that any USA troop withdrawal would be dependent on conditions on the ground, and not on any particular timetable.
US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad will undertake an important visit to Pakistan before February 20 to finalise the peace accord with Taliban. "A peace agreement can allow withdrawal", he said.
The talks come as US President Donald Trump pushes to end the Afghanistan conflict, where about 14,000 US troops are still deployed and which has seen countless thousands of civilian and military deaths, as well as an infusion of more than $1 trillion in US cash into the country.
Speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, Ambassador Khalilzad said he was hopeful a peace deal could be finalized before presidential elections. Some believe the chances the USA would reverse direction and return to Afghanistan are unlikely at best. Some of them also warned that the current Afghan government would not have enough support to stay in power without a USA military presence.
During the State of the Union address last week, President Trump touched on the ongoing war, which has been mired in a stalemate and is about to enter into its 18th year.
Khalilzad repeatedly stressed the USA would not leave Afghanistan without enforcement mechanisms in place to ensure Afghanistan does not become a terrorist safe haven. Pundits like Kugelman fear that a semblance of an agreement with the Taliban will be announced but the Taliban will begin to renege on its commitments once the United States begins to withdraw its forces.
A day before the Moscow meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the US of holding talks in secrecy and leaving the regional countries "in the dark".
Critics have questioned the wisdom of accepting any Taliban assurances against collaboration with al-Qaida, and Khalilzad did not explain how Washington would ensure that any such arrangement were effective.
Khalilzad is seeking an agreement in which Taliban would negotiate in good faith with the Afghan government and commit to ending any terrorism threat within the country. "Words are not enough", he said.
He added that "a possible USA withdrawal as part of our package deal" was agreed to in principle but that an immediate peace agreement would not be achieved without a comprehensive agreement on other issues.
"Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to", he said.
He said that he sees himself as a "catalyst" to find a formula for Afghans to sit down with each other and work out a roadmap for a peaceful future.
Pakistan, he said, favours inter-Afghan dialogue including between the Taliban and the government.
Even the United States has to admit that Russian Federation played a "positive role" in the Afghan peace process, and rushed to call for peace talks itself. "The only entity that can represent the Constitution of Afghanistan, the ANSF, and the interests of the nation is the government of Afghanistan", said Mr. Malikzada, who has been critical of the government in the past.
Pictures of the conference showed Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, the head of the Taliban delegation, standing shoulder to shoulder with Karzai and other Afghan leaders, many of them Ghani's political rivals.
Additionally, he said Taliban officials are willing to take part in a "multiparty arrangement".
However, despite Khalilzad's pressure, the Taliban have so far refused to include the Afghan government in the negotiations, or even meet their representatives directly. In one instance, Islamabad sent a message to the militants through religious leaders that they had to talk to the U.S. or risk a cut-off in ties.