US envoy hopes for Afghan peace deal by July

The United States hopes to reach a peace agreement with the Taliban before the Afghan elections in July, but the country’s elections will go forward regardless, the U.S. envoy for Afghanistan negotiations said Friday.

“It would be better for Afghanistan if we could get a peace agreement before the election,” Zalmay Khalilzad said Friday at the U.S. Institute for Peace in his first public address since his appointment to the envoy position. “If there is no progress on the peace track, elections will take place, and we are doing what we can to support the preparations for credible elections.

ADVERTISEMENT

Khalilzad acknowledged the difficult timeframe given Afghanistan’s elections are scheduled for July 20, but expressed hope negotiations can at least make significant progress by then.

“I understand that peace processes are not a straight line. There could be setbacks,” he said. “Between now and July, there is sufficient time, I believe, where we could reach an agreement. But at least if we have significant progress, that will have a good impact with regard to the future and including the elections.”

Khalilzad told The New York Times after talks with the Taliban in Qatar last month that the U.S. reached a preliminary framework for a peace agreement with the insurgents in America’s longest war.

The draft deal would see the Taliban agree not to allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists to plot attacks against America and its allies, which would allow the U.S. to withdraw its forces.

During his State of the Union address this week, President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE touted the “progress” in negotiations, saying that it means “we will be able to reduce our troop presence and focus on counterterrorism.”

On Friday, Khalilzad affirmed the outline reached to bring to a close the war, which is in its 18th year.

He also stressed that, at the direction of Trump and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoBill Maher says he's 'glad' David Koch is dead Trump spurs new wave of economic angst by escalating China fight Trump on North Korean projectile launches: Kim 'likes testing missiles' MORE, the agreement he is seeking is not a “withdrawal agreement,” adding later that the U.S. presence and possible withdrawal is “conditions-based.”

“A peace agreement can allow withdrawal, but it is not just a withdrawal agreement that we are seeking,” he said.

While terrorism and the U.S. military withdrawal have been at the top of negotiations so far, the United States has a “long agenda” that needs to be addressed with the Taliban.

Those include getting the Taliban to agree to a permanent ceasefire and to engage in direct negotiations with the Afghan government.

“As I’ve said publicly in my tweets before, nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to,” Khalilzad stressed.

On the direct negotiations with the Afghan government, Khalilzad said that is the place where issues such women’s rights have to be addressed. Women in Afghanistan are fearful of a backslide in their rights if the Taliban becomes part of the government.

“We will speak loudly and clearly for the values that we have, the values of human rights, the value of freedom of the press, women’s rights, all that we stand for, and we’ll make sure that they understand that for having positive relations in the future with the United States those values must be respected,” he said.

“I know that the Afghanistan of today is very different than the Afghanistan of 19 years ago,” he added. “It’s a different country. And it will take time, perhaps, for the Taliban to appreciate that, but the message that they have given me is that they understand they cannot go back.”

Addressing critics who say the Trump administration had abandoned the long-held U.S. position that peace talks have to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned, Khalilzad said he sees himself as a “catalyst” to get to the point where the talks do meet that criteria.

On the ceasefire, Khalilzad said the Taliban is reluctant to agree because they believe they will lose leverage to get concessions from the Afghan government. He also said those he was negotiating with in Qatar were not authorized to engage on that issue.

Given that all sides in the war have expressed support for a peace process, he said, “then why should the killing go on?”