April 28

By Karen DeYoung

The U.S. government’s point person for negotiations with the Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad, said Tuesday that he is not as pessimistic as many others are about the future of Afghanistan after the departure of U.S. and coalition troops.

“I don’t personally believe there will be an imminent collapse” of the Afghan government and a Taliban takeover, Khalilzad told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “I believe the choice that the Afghans face is between a negotiated political settlement or a long war.”

“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.”

“The Talibs say they are interested in not being a pariah,” he said. “All I can say is we have made it clear that if they do” move forward, “there can be progress in our relationship.” If they do not, isolation will be “inevitable.”

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.”