By Lara Seligman 09/11/2020 12:40 PM EDT
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, said he is cautiously optimistic a day ahead of the start of long-anticipated peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
“Tomorrow is a momentous day for Afghanistan,” Khalilzad told reporters Friday, noting that the discussions in Qatar will include four women. “For the first time in 40 years, Afghans will sit together … to discuss and hopefully come to an agreement on a political road map to end the war.”
Context: The agreement reached in February between U.S. and Taliban officials laid out a timeline for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan if the Taliban adhere to certain conditions, including participating in intra-Afghan peace talks, ensuring terrorist groups can not threaten the U.S or its allies from Afghan soil, and agreeing to a permanent ceasefire.
The U.S. is on track to draw down to 4,500 troops in the country by mid-October to mid-November, Khalilzad said, similar to what U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Frank McKenzie said this week.
The deal also called for the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban fighters in exchange for 1,000 members of their security forces, but disagreements over the prisoner release stalled the peace talks.
“I know that none of us are happy about the release of prisoners that have committed violence against our forces, but we wanted to keep the big picture in mind,” Khalilzad said. “Difficult decisions had to be made and the release of prisoners was one such difficult decision.”
Near-record levels of violence throughout the country this year, aimed at giving the Taliban more leverage in the peace negotiations, also almost derailed the talks. But Khalilzad noted that militant groups such as the Islamic State also contributed to the violence and that “If there is peace between the Taliban and the government, I think Afghanistan will be in a stronger position to deal with the smaller groups that are part of the reality of Afghanistan.”
Challenges ahead: Though Khalilzad touted the start of negotiations as an “important achievement,” he noted that “there are difficult challenges” to reaching an agreement that will test both sides. The U.S. is “prepared to assist if assistance is needed,” he said, but stressed that the process is “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Doha, Qatar, Thursday for the start of the discussions.