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Key Diplomat Says Do Not Underestimate Afghan Security Forces

FILE - Zalmay Khalilzad, special envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation, testifies before a Senate committee on Capitol Hill, April 27, 2021, during a hearing on the Biden administration's Afghanistan policy and plans to withdraw troops.

U.S. lawmakers worried about the impending withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan got a dose of cautious optimism from the diplomat who helped negotiate last year's deal with the Taliban that paved the way for the upcoming pullout.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the United States' special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, telling members that while the Taliban have not quite lived up to all aspects of their agreement, the country's future is far from lost.

"I do not believe that the government is going to collapse, that the Taliban is going to take over," Khalilzad said. "I don't personally believe that there will be an imminent collapse."

"It would be a mistake in my judgment to dismiss the Afghan security forces as not being a credible force that could perform well, although they will face more difficult circumstances," he added.

Doubts about withdrawal

Critics of the withdrawal have voiced concern about the future of Afghanistan since U.S. President Joe Biden announced earlier this month that he was pulling the 2,500 to 3,500 U.S. troops out of the country beginning May 1.

Lawmakers said Tuesday that they worry about the safety of Afghans who worked with U.S. forces over the past two decades and about what will happen to women's rights as the Taliban likely gain more power.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., questions Zalmay Khalilzad, special envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 27, 2021.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., questions Zalmay Khalilzad, special envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 27, 2021.

"I'm concerned about public executions and other forms of brutality that will just be so incredibly offensive," Republican Senator Ron Johnson said Tuesday.

"Are we going to sit back and just watch?" he asked. "Wring our hands and mourn the fact that we had made so much progress?"

U.S. military officials and a U.S. government watchdog have likewise expressed some reservations about the withdrawal, worrying that the Afghan military cannot stand up to the Taliban without the help of U.S. and coalition troops and thousands of civilian contractors critical to maintenance and logistics efforts.

But Khalilzad said Tuesday that while such concerns should not be dismissed, there is little for the U.S. to gain by keeping troops in Afghanistan any longer.

"The agreement we struck with the Taliban was the best possible under the circumstances," he told lawmakers.

"If we did stay another year or two or indefinitely, we would be back at war," Khalilzad said, adding that the number of U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan might not have been enough to withstand a Taliban onslaught.

“There could have been potentially demand for more forces to be able to maintain the status quo, not to lose significant ground,” he said, warning that even before the U.S.-Taliban deal was signed, "the military balance was changing territorially, negatively for the past several years."

Khalilzad also said that the Taliban have been warned about the consequences of failing to adhere to all aspects of their agreement with the U.S., and of rejecting talks with the current Afghan government.

"If they obstruct a negotiated settlement and instead pursue a military takeover, they will be opposed not only by the Afghan Republic, but by the United States, our allies and partners," he said. "They will face isolation, regional opposition, sanctions and international opprobrium."

U.S. diplomats sent home

Giving critics more cause for concern, however, the U.S. State Department on Tuesday ordered some employees at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to head home, citing a rise in violence.

Embassy staff defended the move, saying it would not affect its critical duties.

"By minimizing the (number) of employees whose functions can be performed elsewhere, personnel who are urgently needed to address issues related to the drawdown of U.S. forces and the vital work we are doing in support of the Afghan people will be able to remain in place," Chargé d'Affaires Ross Wilson wrote. "We do not anticipate any changes to our operations."

For now, though, U.S. military planners are bracing for the possibility that the Taliban, or another group, will target American and NATO troops as they try to leave Afghanistan.

Officials have sent four U.S. B-52 bombers to al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar to help provide air cover for the approximately 10,000 U.S. and NATO forces still in Afghanistan.

The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier has also been ordered to remain in the region for the start of the drawdown. And officials have said ground forces, for protection and logistics, could also be sent to aid with the pullout.

“We've actually got a very good backbone of a plan," U.S. Central Command's General Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie told a virtual forum Tuesday.

"I think we have a plan that will allow for us to get out in a protected manner, that will bring our partners out," he said.