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US envoy for Afghan peace embarks on multi-nation tour amid concerns in Kabul

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, seen here during his time as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Khalilzad left Monday for an eight-country tour to discuss ways of bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.

MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES

By J.P.LAWRENCE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 3, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan — Zalmay Khalilzad, the diplomat heading America’s peace efforts in Afghanistan, left Monday for an eight-country tour to discuss ways of bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Khalilzad will travel to countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia and the United Arab Emirates. He has already spoken multiple times with senior Taliban officials, according to statements by the militant group.

Khalilzad has been “patient, but in a hurry,” said Robin Rafael, a former U.S. diplomat who served in Central Asia. In interviews, Khalilzad has said he hopes the Taliban and the Kabul government can reach a peace agreement before presidential elections next April.

A deal in the next four months would be much quicker than the five-year peace process envisioned by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who outlined his plan last week at a conference in Europe. Ghani said peace efforts must begin with talks between the Taliban and his Kabul government, before expanding to include other nations.

But Ghani’s plan is stymied by the Taliban’s refusal to talk to the Kabul government, which it claims is an American puppet. U.S. officials have repeatedly said any talks with the Taliban would be a preamble to transferring those talks to their Afghan partners. But the fact that Ghani would publicly argue for a protracted peace process indicates a fundamental disagreement between Kabul and Washington, analysts said.

“The Ghani statements are a very clear, explicit signal that he is very frustrated with the course of negotiations and that there is significant distance between him and Khalilzad,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

Khalilzad has floated the idea of creating an interim government which the Taliban would join, according to a report by NBC. Such a prospect could create political problems for Ghani, because some members of his government strongly oppose and power-sharing arrangement with the insurgents.

“The state you are trying to hold on to is in meltdown mode, even if you weren’t dealing with the Taliban,” said Kamran Bokhari, senior fellow with the Center for Global Policy in Washington.

A preliminary deal could be reached and then perfected over many years, Bokhari said. He cited a similar process that occurred in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, where Khalilzad oversaw talks that brought in anti-government factions. Such a peace process will require time, as the Taliban currently lack a political wing and would therefore not be able to integrate into the Kabul government, Bokhari said.

Complicating matters, the Taliban have maintained their hard-line demands, saying in recent statements that the group will never agree to anything that does not follow its strict interpretation of Islamic principles.

Talks so far have been over basic issues, a Taliban spokesman told Stars and Stripes. Real talks can only begin once foreign troops have left the country. “There will not be a chance for Afghans to sit and have talks and reach a solution if there are foreign troops in the country,” spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said. “We are not tired of war. We can make more sacrifices.”

Unnamed U.S. officials told NBC that they assume President Donald Trump will pull troops out from Afghanistan before the 2020 elections. Analysts said the flurry of recent diplomatic activity by the U.S. is a sign Trump wants a deal fast – even if that is not ideal.

“Pursuing peace talks with your foot on the accelerator makes for bad policy,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center in Washington. Kugelman said peace deals can sometimes take decades. If the Taliban continues to expand its control of the country, “then Washington is setting itself up for failure with its accelerated effort to launch talks and complete a deal.”

lawrence.jp@stripes.com
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