“I hope they will come together and cooperate,” he said of the militants, the Afghan government and political forces, saying that continued war was “senseless” for all concerned. “The opportunity is there. Our support is there. The support of the international community is largely there as well.”
Committee members were broadly bipartisan in their negative predictions about Afghanistan’s future, and few had anything positive to say about President Biden’s withdrawal decision.
But while many warned of a growing terrorist threat, the likelihood that gains for women, children and minorities would be reversed under inevitable Taliban rule, and the difficulty of Biden’s decision, none said it would be better to stay.
Instead, both Republican and Democratic senators appealed to Khalilzad to explain how the United States, with no presence in Afghanistan, would prevent any of the dire predictions from happening.
The withdrawal “may result in a Taliban offensive that topples the government,” said Sen. James E. Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the committee. “Most of the people who work in this space think that’s the direction it is headed. . . . Our departure from Afghanistan will not improve conditions on the ground.”
“The messaging from the administration has been limited,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the committee’s chairman. “Our troops are leaving at some point before Sept. 11. I got that. But what is the plan for the path forward? Can we effectively conduct counterterrorism operations without a presence inside Afghanistan?”
“Do we have leverage to ensure that a power-sharing arrangement” between the Taliban and the government “broadly reflects the will of all the Afghan people?” he asked.
Repeatedly, Khalilzad responded that much will depend on the Taliban, which has expanded its territorial reach and increased the level of violence since signing an agreement 14 months ago with the Trump administration that set a May 1 deadline for the U.S. withdrawal.
The militants have a choice “between two futures,” he said. They can “embrace a negotiated path to peace, make the transition from violent insurgency to a political movement” and earn “respect in the global community.”
“But if they obstruct a negotiated settlement, and instead pursue a military takeover, they will be opposed not only by the Afghan Republic, but by the United States and allies and partners in the region,” including isolation and sanctions.
Asked whether the Taliban had complied with its side of the deal he negotiated under the Trump administration, Khalilzad pointed to the start of negotiations last fall between the militants and the government, although little progress has been made.
The Taliban also “agreed not to attack coalition forces. . . . That has been honored,” he said, noting that although there have been some casualties, there have been no U.S. military fatalities since the agreement.
The United States has been “less satisfied,” he said, with the Taliban’s compliance with a pledge to sever ties with terrorist groups, principally al-Qaeda, and not permit them to plot, plan, recruit or carry out attacks against the United States and its allies.
“There are other areas in which we are less satisfied,” Khalilzad said. “The level of violence has been too high compared to what we expected to happen.”
In his own conversations with the militants, he said, they have made clear they do not want to return to the international pariah status they held when they last ran the government in Kabul, during the late 1990s until the U.S. invasion after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“I’ve never seen much evidence of the Taliban embracing the modern world,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), or indications that it wants to “move forward.”
“We will have to see whether in practice they will,” Khalilzad said. “They say they do. Obviously they have their own values. . . . But those values that they speak about, Islam, that is present in many countries in the world. . . . We see those values practiced differently from place to place.”
Khalilzad repeated the administration’s promise to continue funding the Afghan security forces and government, and he advised that their capabilities, after nearly two decades of allied and Afghan training, should not be underestimated.
“I hope that your optimism is rewarded,” Menendez said. But “I fear that at some point in the future, we may be having a hearing that that isn’t the ultimate reality.”
27 April 2021
Khalilzad testified to Congress on Tuesday, the same day the State Department advised US citizens “wishing to depart Afghanistan should leave as soon as possible” and ordered non-essential US embassy workers to leave the country, saying “travel to all areas of Afghanistan is unsafe”.
The envoy said keeping US forces in Afghanistan did not make sense, as the conflict could not be solved by continued fighting.
“The choice that the Afghans face is between a negotiated political settlement or a long war,” Khalilzad told sceptical US legislators in Congress.
“That opportunity is once again confronting them and it’s up to them,” Khalilzad said in his first public testimony since President Joe Biden announced a decision to withdraw all US forces by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaeda-directed attacks on New York and Washington that prompted the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.
The US has about 3,500 troops in Afghanistan alongside about 7,000 NATO forces as well as about 16,000 contractors. Khalilzad said the deal he signed with the Taliban last year includes the agreement to withdraw US contractors supporting Afghan forces on the same timetable as the US troop exit. Khalilzad said the US is helping the Kabul government find contractors to replace the departing American ones.
Biden has pledged to continue US financial support for the government in Kabul and its military and police forces – reportedly about 300,000 but that number is believed to be lower.
Khalilzad said the “terrorism” threat that led to the 2001 attacks has now moved to other regions.
Khalilzad led 18-months of talks between the US and the Taliban in 2018-19 that resulted in the withdrawal agreement. It was also supposed to pave the way for direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government aimed at achieving a viable peace process but none has emerged after a year of on-again, off-again talks.
An Afghan peace conference that was due to be held in Turkey this month has been postponed because the Taliban has stayed away. The Turkish, Pakistani and Afghan foreign ministers on Friday urged the Taliban to reaffirm its commitment to negotiations and an end to violence.
Leading members of Congress have offered mixed reactions to Biden’s announcement and Senate leaders said on Tuesday they are concerned Biden is rushing a US withdrawal.
“How we withdraw and what political arrangement is left in our wake matters deeply,” said Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat who has been critical of the Biden administration’s handling of the decision.
“If the Taliban were to come back to power, the reality for Afghanistan’s women and girls, I think, would be devastating,” said Menendez.
When they ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001 the Taliban forbade education for girls and largely kept women out of the workforce and public life in general.
Khalilzad said any future support of a government that included the Taliban would be conditional. “If they do want US assistance, they want international acceptance … those things will be all affected by how they treat their own citizens, first and foremost the women of Afghanistan, children and minorities,” he told the senators.
Senator Jim Risch, the senior Republican, said the US military withdrawal should proceed only with safeguards for the gains the US has made in Afghanistan.
“I have deep concerns about the administration’s rush for the exits in Afghanistan,” Risch said.
“I hope I’m wrong, but I’m concerned that the administration’s decision may result in a Taliban offensive that topples the government,” he said.
“I do not believe the government is going to collapse or the Taliban is going to take over,” Khalilzad said.
Biden has said the withdrawal is not based on any conditions, implying it will go ahead whatever happens in Afghanistan.
The 2019 agreement Khalilzad signed with the Taliban stipulated the group would break all ties with al-Qaeda, while the United Nations has said the two organisations remain closely linked – which the Taliban denies.
The agreement had also said all foreign forces including US troops and contractors would withdraw from Afghanistan by May 1 if the Taliban fulfilled its part of the deal. On April 14 Biden extended that deadline until September.