Taliban peace talks face skepticism from lawmakers

Taliban peace talks face skepticism from lawmakers
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Lawmakers and foreign policy experts alike are warning that the ongoing peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan won’t go as smoothly as the Trump administration has portrayed.

Administration officials of late have touted an initial framework for a peace deal, currently in the works between U.S. and Taliban officials, to end the now 18-year war and pull foreign troops from the nation.

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President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he will 'temporarily hold off' on declaring Mexican drug cartels as terror organization House Judiciary Committee formally receives impeachment report Artist behind gold toilet offered to Trump sells banana duct-taped to a wall for 0,000 MORE on Friday bashed U.S. involvement in Middle East conflicts, claiming he “inherited a total mess” in Syria and Afghanistan and insisting that U.S. military force has pushed the Taliban to the negotiating table.

“During my campaign I said, very strongly, that these wars must finally end. We spend $50 Billion a year in Afghanistan and have hit them so hard that we are now talking peace,” he tweeted.

But lawmakers are approaching a possible peace deal with cautious optimism at best or skepticism.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) told The Hill that it's a positive sign that Washington is engaging the Taliban, but added, “I don't want to get overly optimistic.”

“If the reports are true that they have at least at this step agreed that they would use their resources to ensure that Afghanistan is not a jumping off point for terrorism against the United States or the West, that's a good part,” he said Thursday.

The talks, led by U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, have given way to an initial blueprint for an eventual peace deal. The administration is eyeing a final agreement that would include the withdrawal of U.S. troops and a ceasefire in the country.

In return, the Taliban would agree to not harbor terrorist organizations that could threaten U.S. security.

Khalilzad, who traveled to the Afghan capital of Kabul late last month after six days of peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar, told The New York Times that details still need to be worked out. But he said there has been "significant progress” in the discussions.

It is not clear, however, whether the draft plan would be acceptable to Afghan leaders, who were not part of the talks.

That could be a major roadblock to a final agreement.

Menendez said the Taliban will eventually need to talk directly to the Afghan government.

“Until those negotiations are happening ... we're far from where we need to be."

Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-R.I.), shared the sentiment that there will be “difficulties” in getting the Afghan government involved. Reed also asked, “how do you verify whatever promises that the Taliban might make?"

The uncertainty about the talks crosses party lines. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that he wanted to speak with Khalilzad as he has “some concerns” based on comments from former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker. Graham did add that he was “encouraged that we're talking."

Crocker, who served as a U.S. ambassador for former Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, said that it would be a mistake to pull U.S. forces from Afghanistan as part of a deal with the Taliban, calling it a “dangerous concession,” on CNN's "Right Now" with Brianna Keilar.

He also wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that the talks are akin to “negotiating the terms of our surrender.”

“The Taliban will offer any number of commitments, knowing that when we are gone and the Taliban is back, we will have no means of enforcing any of them,” Crocker wrote.

Several lawmakers have pushed back against a quick pullout ahead of any final peace treaty, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The lawmaker on Tuesday warned on the Senate floor against a “precipitous withdrawal” that “could put at risk hard-won gains and United States national security.” 

Scott Worden, an Afghanistan expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said he believes it’s “premature” to form any strong opinion on whether peace talks will be successful.

“By Ambassador Khalilzad’s own admission, and in the context that there are not all the elements to a deal in place yet anyway, it’s really too early to render some kind of definitive verdict on the process, and even hard to predict where it will go,” Worden told The Hill.

He also emphasized that the draft outline is “a first step of what will be many steps,” and will be a long process.

“The root causes of the conflict in Afghanistan are fundamentally political and they need to be resolved with a dialogue among the Afghan political factions. That’s waiting in the wings and we’re not there yet and how that goes and whether it goes forward is a big open question.”

The talks have high political stakes for Trump, who promised on the campaign trail that he would end U.S. involvement in foreign conflict. In August 2017, he announced a new strategy to help end the Afghanistan war, injecting more than 3,000 troops into the fight and increasing air strikes.

In December, reports emerged that Trump, unhappy with the strategy’s progress, was seeking a major withdrawal from the country.

But despite the administration’s eagerness to wrap up U.S. presence in the country, no formal process has begun to bring troops home, indicating a long road ahead.

Asked on Monday if he had been tasked with a full U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan replied, “I have not.”

— Rebecca Kheel contributed to this story