ISLAMABAD - The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation says despite challenges and difficulties he is “cautiously optimistic or hopeful” about facilitating an inter-Afghan peace dialogue to end the 17-year war.
Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-born American diplomat, spoke to reporters Sunday, a day after returning to the Afghan capital from three days of marathon talks with Qatar-based political envoys of the Taliban. He spoke with Afghan politicians inside and outside of the government before traveling to the Gulf nation, where the insurgent group maintains its “political office.”
“I know that the government of Afghanistan wants peace. The Taliban are saying that they do not believe that they can succeed militarily that they would like to see the problems that remain resolved by peaceful means, by political negotiations,” the U.S. envoy noted without sharing further details of his meetings with Taliban negotiators.
“I think there is an opportunity for reconciliation and peace... I don’t have anything to announce today, but I remain cautiously optimistic or hopeful given the complexities that exist. I don't want to underestimate the challenges and I don't want to raise false expectations,” said Khalilzad.
On Saturday, several Taliban sources also noted that both sides were optimistic about the dialogue process with Khalilzad’s team.
He would not say whether the the Taliban is willing to give up on its key demands and insisted it is for Afghans themselves to discuss such internal issues when the rival sides come to the negotiating table.
“The first thing to do is to get delegations selected, start a process for dialogue and from that dialogue or negotiations, then will come an outcome, hopefully a positive outcome, and that will have a roadmap for the future,” the ambassador said.
The Taliban has recently boosted its team of negotiators in Qatar while Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has been holding meetings with leaders and representatives of Afghan political parties and civil society organizations about forming a negotiating team.
Khalilzad has held two publicly known round of talks with the Taliban in more than a month. The Trump administration appointed him to the office in September with the goal of bringing the Afghan government and the insurgent group to the negotiating table.
The Taliban says its dialogue process with Washington is aimed at securing a timetable for the withdrawal of all American and NATO troops from Afghanistan to pave the way for an intra-Afghan dialogue. But the insurgent group has not said whether it would be ready to hold direct talks with the Afghan government the Taliban dismisses as an “American puppet.”
“The government is an internationally recognized legitimate government of Afghanistan. So, I don't see a way around talking to the government,” the envoy noted when asked whether he was seeking talks between Kabul and the Taliban.
Khalilzad stressed “the most important issue facing Afghanistan right now is the issue of peace”, but he denied comments attributed to him that the United States is seeking postponement of the April 20 presidential elections to allow the peace process to shape up first.
“I hope that the Taliban and other Afghans would use the election date as a deadline to achieve a peace agreement before then ... because the violence will end, participation will be broader, the outcome would be more broadly accepted,” he explained.
Ambassador Khalilzad spoke a day after the top U.S. military commander said the Taliban "are not losing" in Afghanistan and a political reconciliation, not the military effort, will help end the stalemated conflict.
“Our task is to make sure the Taliban realize that they cannot win on the battlefield. They are not losing right now. I think that’s a fair statement,” Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a security forum Saturday in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“We used the term stalemate a year ago and relatively speaking it has not changed much,” Dunford added.
He said that both political and military pressure is continuously being applied to push the Taliban to the negotiating table.
“While there is much going on in that regard below the surface I think we are a long way from where we can say that we are on the right path,” the American commander noted.