Chief U.S. Negotiator In Afghanistan Says Peace Deal Is Still Far Off

Feb 8, 2019
Originally published on February 8, 2019 7:53 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now an update on negotiations to end the 17-year-old war in Afghanistan. The chief negotiator for the U.S. says he has reached an agreement with the Taliban on some key points, but a peace deal is still far away.

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ZALMAY KHALILZAD: What we have achieved so far is significant. But these are two or three small steps in a long journey.

SHAPIRO: That's Zalmay Khalilzad speaking today at a Washington think tank. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman was listening and is in the studio now. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So Khalilzad has been in negotiations with the Taliban for months now. What does he say the points of agreement are that have been reached?

BOWMAN: Well, two things he says that have been agreed to between the U.S. and the Taliban. First the Taliban will not allow Afghanistan to be a safe haven for terrorists like al-Qaida. And, of course, the Taliban hosting al-Qaida led to their overthrow after the 9/11 attacks. And in exchange for no safe havens, the U.S. will withdraw its troops. Now, Khalilzad said Taliban negotiators have agreed to this, but not their leadership - at least, not yet. So he said that would have to be fleshed out. They meet again in a little over two weeks in Doha, Qatar.

SHAPIRO: And what are the biggest obstacles that are still outstanding?

BOWMAN: Well, for the U.S. and the Afghans, it's the refusal of the Taliban to sit down with the Afghan government. They see the government as just puppets of the U.S. Khalilzad says they must meet with the Afghan government for all this to move forward. He said that's key. Khalilzad says the Taliban have said they'd take part in a multi-party arrangement for talks. Now, we don't know what that means. Is that the U.S. still has to be part of that, other Afghan officials being part of that? There's no sense of that right yet. Now, the Taliban will also have to respect human rights, women's rights and become part of the political process. For the Taliban, the obstacle has always been this - foreign troops. They have to leave.

SHAPIRO: OK. A lot of hurdles there, from talking with the government, to human rights, to the presence of foreign troops. Even if the two sides are able to reach some kind of a coalition agreement, could the Taliban actually accept girls going to school, women in the workforce - things that were prohibited when they ruled the country in the '90s?

BOWMAN: You know, we're not sure. And, of course, that's a major concern of women in Afghanistan, you might imagine, including some of them that I know and reached out to in Kabul. Under the Taliban, women had to wear burqas, could not work outside the home. Girls couldn't go to school. Women are now in Parliament and the media, in business. They're a huge part of the workforce. And Ambassador Khalilzad talked about that, that Afghanistan has changed since 2001 when the Taliban were in power.

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KHALILZAD: The Afghanistan of today is very different than Afghanistan of 19 years ago. It's a different country. And it will take time for the Taliban, perhaps, to appreciate that. But the message that they have given me is that they understand that they cannot go back.

BOWMAN: Now, the Taliban have made some comments about respecting women's rights, that they made mistakes in the past. But, of course, the question is this. How do you make sure they'll abide by any such agreements? And if they do backtrack, what will happen? Who will enforce it? And again, those are questions being asked by women in Afghanistan, in particular.

SHAPIRO: President Trump talked about this in his State of the Union Address this week. He said, great nations do not fight endless wars. He's been really clear that he would like to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, as well as from Syria. What did Khalilzad say about the president's willingness to continue negotiations if there isn't a breakthrough quickly?

BOWMAN: Well, Khalilzad said the order to withdraw troops will depend on progress in the talks, conditions on the ground. I'm not so sure about that. The people I talked with believe President Trump could order out maybe thousands of U.S. troops who are training Afghans and shift that to coalition partners. And then the remaining U.S. troops will focus on the counterterror effort. Of course, a few weeks back, in the middle of Khalilzad's negotiations, the president said he wanted to remove half of the 14,000 troops in Afghanistan.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.