Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad speaks during the House Committee on Oversight and Reform Subcommittee hearing on Next Steps for US Engagement in Afghanistan at Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 20, 2021.

As US withdraws troops from Afghanistan, it will remain ‘fully focused’ on peace, says negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad

Zalmay Khalilzad, US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, says the US and the Taliban have alternative visions for the future. He joins the The World's Marco Werman with insights on the slow, difficult peace negotiation process.

The World

Editor's note: This interview is broken into two parts on the June 11, 2021, broadcast of The World. Part one is above, and part two appears further below.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan is now more than half complete, according to military officials this week.

It's in line with President Joe Biden's order for the US to get out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11.

Related: Women negotiators in Afghan-Taliban peace talks spur global change

In the meantime, fighting has intensified on the ground there. The Taliban has taken over key districts and continues to attack Afghan forces. 

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, has been at the heart of the efforts to negotiate a deal between the United States and the Taliban. He joined The World's host Marco Werman to discuss the challenges and progress made toward lasting peace in Afghanistan as US troops leave. 

Related: Afghans in Turkey hope for peace in their home country

Marco Werman: Representatives of the Afghan government have been negotiating, of course, with the Taliban, in Doha, for the past 10 months. Where do those negotiations stand today? Do you see any progress toward a peace deal that would precede the last day of the US presence there in September? 

Zalmay Khalilzad: The fact that the Afghan government representatives and the Taliban are negotiating with each other is a historic development in the history of conflict in Afghanistan for the last 40 years. There has been some progress. They've agreed on rules and procedures, but the progress has been very slow and substantive negotiations have not gone underway yet, and we would like that to happen as soon as possible. 

Historic, but so far, little to show for these negotiations. Was it a mistake, do you think, to give so many concessions to the Taliban without anything in return? I mean, especially now, it doesn't seem it's in their interest to negotiate? 

Well, the negotiations and the agreement between the United States and the Taliban was aimed at opening the door to enter Afghan negotiations, for, without an agreement between the US and the Taliban, there wouldn't be inter-Afghan negotiations. But the other — and the key factor that motivated the negotiations — were also our own interest, an agreement in terms of the withdrawal of our forces, not to attack those forces. ... And that has held for the last 16 months and also commitments on the part of the Taliban with regard to terrorism, not allow the territory of Afghanistan to be used by terrorist groups or individuals against the United States or our allies and to enter into negotiations with the government and a comprehensive ceasefire.

What are the main sticking points? I mean, what are the sides asking for that's slowing down this process?

Well, there is a mistrust, No. 1, between the two sides. They have been fighting for a long time. Two, they have alternative visions for Afghanistan's future. They have different expectations in terms of power sharing, and are waiting for the withdrawal, I believe, and to see what the balance of power on the ground would be without the international forces. But I believe that the only realistic option for them is for the two sides to negotiate a settlement.

The alternative is a long war, which is not in the interests of the Afghan people. We are working for peace. Our forces are leaving, to the excuse that peace cannot happen with foreign occupation. And that is gone. That will be gone soon. And there is broad international consensus that a political settlement is the only option. Their only option is the best option — and the alternative is a long war and the suffering of the Afghan people.

Two very different visions of the future that could mean the difference between a peaceful life and one that is not for the Afghan people. I mean, the original mission of the US in Afghanistan after 9/11, we should remember, was to root out al-Qaeda and prevent Afghanistan from being a safe haven for future plots against the US and the West. Today, ISIS is in Afghanistan. So are the most extremist players in the Taliban. Al-Qaeda is still alive. Is that original mission still a concern? 

The original mission is a concern, and we will do what we can and what's necessary to keep an eye on the terrorism picture and to be able to respond in a timely fashion. But I disagree that the situation is the same as it was after 9/11. The terrorism challenge from Afghanistan is much smaller to the United States and its allies than it was then. Al-Qaeda is not what it was, and the world situation has changed. We have to adjust our posture to respond to the changed reality of the world. And those were the facts that led the president to decide what he did.

Afghanistan has become less of a safe haven for terrorists. But if the US is leaving, many people feel it won't be less of a safe haven — it will be more so. 

The future is uncertain, obviously, and the record of people predicting exactly what will happen is not that great. We all need to be a little humble. But because of that uncertainty, because of the possibility that the terrorism threat could grow, we are posturing ourselves regionally to be able to both monitor and to respond. There will be some diminution in our ability, both with regard to monitoring and responding. But the threat is also different, as I said, than before. So given the current threat and the expectations for the near term, the posture that we are putting together in the region, we believe, will be adequate to deal with the problem. 

And yet, the United Nations just this week said that the Taliban keeps close ties with al-Qaeda and says the Taliban is not at all interested in breaking ties with them. What's your response to that?

I have seen their report and we believe, the United States believes that the Taliban have made progress with regard to the commitments that they have made to the US not to host, not to allow training, fundraising and planning and plotting by international terrorists, individuals or groups, against the United States and our allies from the soil of Afghanistan. We are not satisfied, obviously, and we will continue to press them to live up to every element in detail of the commitment that they have made.

How can the US keep tabs on all of these adversaries from afar? 

We do, and we have to. The technology of monitoring has changed. We have capabilities that we did not have in the early period before 9/11. We have succeeded in weakening the terrorist groups. But we need to monitor not only Afghanistan, we shouldn't be fighting the last war, but we should be focused on the future environment.

And that future environment means focus on the great power competition, which has become more significant and which has meant that we should withdraw our forces from Afghanistan that monitor this problem from the neighborhood and from around the world.

But it sounds like you're planning to continue the war from afar. 

No. ... The war between the United States will be over in Afghanistan once our forces are out. But we'll keep an eye on other places where terrorism challenge remains.

As far as US troops operating from nearby bases in other countries, how are the negotiations with those neighboring countries going? I mean, for example, is Pakistan willing to have US assets on its soil?

Well, I don't want to get into the specifics of our negotiations with different countries, but we're making progress. We will defend our security interests in Afghanistan and protect ourselves against the threat of terrorism — appropriately postured to respond to the current and expected threats of terrorism from Afghanistan and otherwise. 

In addition to stomping out a safe haven for extremists in Afghanistan, there was also the additional and noble goal of improving the lives of women and children. How will the US continue to advocate and support that? What guarantees can the US give them that there won't be any backsliding to the days of the 1990s Taliban?

Well, the decision about the future is up to the Afghans. It's not the responsibility of the United States to organize other countries.

It's not? I mean, the United States led Afghanistan down the road almost, you know, with promises that lives would improve for women and children.

Thank you for asking that. Afghans, on average, live longer by 10 years than they did. Millions of Afghans go to school. Afghanistan has a free press. So we have done a great deal in support of the Afghan people to improve their lives. With regards to the Taliban, they face that choice if they go to political negotiations, a settlement there will be normalcy, legitimacy, end of pariah status. But if they do not, we'll stand with the republic and they will be isolated. They will be opposed. And so, that's a choice that the Taliban has to make. But ultimately, the responsibility for Afghanistan belongs to the Afghans.

Do you see a scenario in which the US troops withdraw and are then pulled back in because of a civil war?

Well, I'm not getting into speculation about future scenarios.

No, I'm not saying it would happen. But is that one of the scenarios you're considering? 

We're not considering restarting a war in Afghanistan. We're not considering that. We are focused on supporting the Afghans, pushing for peace. But at the same time, of course, we'll protect ourselves against potential terrorists. The future is uncertain. And I do not want to speculate. 

I'm not asking you to speculate. But I mean, are you not concerned about the advances by the Taliban just in the past month? 

Well, I'm not surprised by them, frankly, because the balance of power with the withdrawal has changed at some of those areas — areas that were difficult for the government to protect. But the Taliban, as I said, has the choice to make, although they could advance militarily and more. It would have negative consequences that could produce the very circumstances that they say they do not want, which is a long war.

We've heard from many Afghans on this program that they're concerned about the future of the country. What is your message to them as the US departs?

Well, I feel their pain. I share their concern about the future of Afghanistan. But the answer is not more war. The answer is a negotiated settlement. 

If this is Sept. 10, tomorrow would be the official day that all US troops are gone. What if there is no peace settlement? What would you say to Afghans, then? 

Well, we will continue to work for peace while our forces will be leaving. And that, I will say, on that day that our forces have departed, will depart. The departure will be completed, that we're not leaving Afghanistan. The United States is not leaving Afghanistan. We will engage, remain fully focused with a lot of energy to help them achieve peace.

Afghanistan will be one of the largest, if not the largest recipient of US foreign assistance. That's not abandoning Afghanistan. That's not leaving Afghanistan. It's one element of US engagement with Afghanistan that will depart the country. We want to leave a good legacy behind, and the best legacy will be to help Afghans achieve peace.

You know the numbers. US taxpayers have spent somewhere around a trillion dollars to wage a war in Afghanistan. US troops are now leaving a very uncertain situation for Afghans: 45,000 Afghan security forces have died, 111,000 civilians dead, US troops' fatalities far lower, but still at 2,300. One wonders what the sacrifices were about. I mean, you've been special representative since 2018. You've been a trusted adviser for the White House on Afghanistan long before that. What would you redo if you could?

Well, I mean, a lot of books would be written about that engagement in Afghanistan and lessons learned, what we did right, what we did wrong. But it's clear that the war, the way it evolved, was not going in the right direction and that there was no military solution. We thought at one point that there was a military solution. But for reasons that will take a long time to explain, we got to a situation where there was no military option for victory. So that choice was between an endless war or to push for a political settlement. And the way to get to a political settlement was to reach an agreement with the Taliban and an end to the conflict through a political settlement and the departure of US troops.

So, for those who have died, those who have been maimed, both American and Afghans, we think it's an imperative that we feel strongly to do what we can to help them achieve a negotiated peace in which they, despite their differences on the future, on their government, that they can agree to a formula that coexistence can take place. That differences are resolved not by military means, but by negotiations and compromise and a process that they have agreed to.

Listen to part two of the above interview here: 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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