Overnight Defense: US envoy eyes Taliban peace deal by July | Taliban reluctant to offer ceasefire | Report says Pentagon planning to leave Syria by April

Happy Friday and welcome to Overnight Defense. We're Rebecca Kheel and Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

 

THE TOPLINE: The U.S. envoy negotiating peace the Taliban on Friday set a timeline for when the United States wants an agreement reached.

Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, said he hopes to finish before the Afghan elections on July 20.

Even if that doesn't happen, though, he insisted Afghanistan's elections will move forward.

"It would be better for Afghanistan if we could get a peace agreement before the election," Khalilzad said Friday at the U.S. Institute for Peace in his first public address since his appointment to the 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."

Khalilzad acknowledged the difficult timeframe 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."

On a withdrawal: Khalilzad also stressed that, at the direction of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's top adviser on Asia to serve as deputy national security adviser United Auto Workers strike against GM poised to head into eighth day Trump doubles down on call to investigate Biden after whistleblower complaint: 'That's the real story' MORE and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPompeo: Countries should reject China's demands to repatriate Uighurs Trump says he will consider releasing transcript of Ukraine call White House officials, Giuliani come to Trump's defense on Ukraine allegations MORE, the agreement he is seeking is not a "withdrawal agreement." He added 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 women's rights: Khalilzad said Taliban-Afghan government negotiations is the place where issues such a women's rights have to be address. 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 a ceasefire: Khalilzad said the Taliban is reluctant to agree to a permanent ceasefire because it believes it will lose its leverage to get concessions from the Afghan government. He also said those representatives 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?"

 

MEANWHILE IN SYRIA: There was also news on Friday about the other pending U.S. military withdrawal.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the Trump administration plans to withdraw U.S. forces in Syria by the end of April, with most of them out of the country by mid-March.

Why it's surprising: As recently as Tuesday, the top. U.S. general overseeing the military in the Middle East denied that there was a timeline for the withdrawal.

"I am not under pressure to be out by a specific date, and I have not had any specific conditions put upon me," U.S. Central Command commander Gen. Joseph Votel told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Of course, that was the same hearing where Votel revealed that Trump did not consult him prior to announcing the withdrawal in the first place in December.

The Wall Street Journal also noted that there are still no plans to protect Kurdish partners against Turkey after the withdrawal, which has been a key concern of U.S. military officers and lawmakers.

 

ON TAP FOR MONDAY

Frank Kendall, the former head of Pentagon acquisition, will speak on concentration, competition and defense contracting outcomes at 3 p.m. at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. https://bit.ly/2BsTjzZ

 

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