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U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan tied to Afghan dialogue and a Taliban cease-fire

Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan, is pictured in Washington on April 27, 2016. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration struggled this week to clarify its intentions in Afghanistan, after the president’s call to withdraw thousands of U.S. troops and reports that it was negotiating a departure schedule with the Taliban, rather than with the Afghan government.

No withdrawal will occur until a comprehensive cease-fire and a political road map for peace have been negotiated between the militants and the Afghans, a senior administration official said.

Instead, the official described a step-by-step process in which nothing of substance will happen until every piece of a complex series of actions is in place. “Our position right now, and [the Taliban] understand it, is that nothing will be implemented” until agreement on all issues has “not only has been completed, but has started to be implemented,” the official said.

“Everything is to be implemented at the same time,” said the official, who agreed there has been “some misunderstanding” about what happened during the latest U.S.-Taliban meeting, and in subsequent U.S. talks this week with the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. The U.S. official spoke on the condition of anonymity to address the sensitive diplomatic exchanges.

The talks with the Taliban were an early sign of diplomatic progress toward ending the 17-year war in Afghanistan. Reaching a broad deal with the militants, selling it to the Afghan government and bringing the U.S. role in the conflict to a peaceful conclusion would together be a major achievement for President Trump.

But the lengthy war, chief U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad wrote on Twitter early Thursday, “won’t be resolved in one meeting.”

After six days of talks with a Taliban delegation in Qatar last week, Khalilzad announced an agreement in principle on a draft “framework” on the eventual withdrawal of some 14,000 U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan and a Taliban guarantee that Afghan territory would never be used by terrorists — including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Critics in Washington and Kabul quickly charged that the administration was seeking an early exit from Afghanistan without obtaining further Taliban concessions, including direct negotiations with the Afghan government, a step the militants have long refused to take.

For new U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, ‘deja vu all over again’

Ghani and his advisers have been increasingly perturbed at being excluded from the talks, expanding a growing rift between Afghan government officials and the U.S. peace envoy. They accuse Khalilzad if making what they consider needlessly generous concessions to the Taliban and allege that he wants to delay the presidential election slated for July and install a more malleable interim government — something the Taliban also is said to be seeking.

Khalilzad was “disrespectful and dismissive” this week when he briefed Ghani on the Taliban talks, a senior Ghani aide said Thursday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the relationship. “We don’t trust Khalilzad. He has been neither neutral nor transparent,” the aide said. “He has given the Taliban everything they wanted.”

The senior Trump administration official sharply denied that Khalilzad has had any discussion about an interim government with the Taliban or Afghan officials, while acknowledging that it would be “better . . . if there is a political agreement about the future before the elections.” But “the future political order, how they get from here to that, once they agree . . . is up to the Afghans,” the U.S. official said.

“We want the Afghan government and other Afghans to be at the table as soon as possible,” the official said. “The Taliban do not reject the necessity of Afghan government participation. The question is of timing and modalities.”

In an address to the Afghan people Monday, Ghani warned that any peace agreement that did not include Afghan authorities would end in disaster and bloodshed. The same day, he wrote a letter to Trump proposing that they jointly review ways to reduce expenses for U.S. troops, and noting that the United States and Afghanistan have signed several binding security accords over the years.

In Washington, experts also questioned U.S. intentions and agreements in the talks. “What this looks like is the U.S. trying to find a way to get out,” said Seth Jones, director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a former military adviser in Afghanistan.

“Most of the concessions, insofar as we know, have been made by the United States,” said James Dobbins, a retired senior diplomat who served as the Obama administration’s senior representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban, he said, “have done nothing but say they won’t harbor al-Qaeda. . . . It’s not much of a concession.”

Concern also extended to Trump’s allies in Congress, where the Senate on Thursday passed a bipartisan warning against a “precipitous withdrawal” from Afghanistan and Syria. In sponsoring the measure, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stressed the need for the White House to coordinate a long-term strategy with Congress, “including a thorough accounting of the risks of withdrawing too hastily.”

As described by the senior administration official, the agenda at the U.S.-Taliban meetings in Doha, the Qatari capital, included four issues: the Taliban counterterrorism guarantee; the sequencing of a U.S. withdrawal; a permanent cease-fire; and negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government on a political road map for peace.

Progress was made on the first two points, the official said, but the Taliban “said the last two issues were beyond the mandate of their delegation, and agreed to take those issues and what we proposed on those to their leadership, and get back to us by the next meeting” in late February.

On Twitter, Khalilzad said that “skeptics have rushed to judgment based on just the first part of a much larger effort, as though we have a completed agreement.”

“We made significant progress on two vital issues: counter terrorism and troop withdrawal,” he tweeted. “That doesn’t mean we’re done. We’re not even finished with these issues yet, and there is still work to be done on other vital issues like intra-Afghan dialogue and a complete ceasefire.”

Despite its long-standing refusal, the senior official said, the Taliban recognizes and agrees that it eventually will have to sit down with the Afghan government, but “their desire” is to settle that issue later.

The impression that the United States was leaving without getting much in return stemmed in large part from Trump’s abrupt orders in December for the Pentagon to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria and to unilaterally cut the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by half.

The orders appeared to discard stated U.S. strategy in both countries. Late last summer, the administration said troops would remain in Syria until the Islamic State was completely defeated and Iranian forces and proxies had left the country. A year earlier, in August 2017, a lengthy White House review of Afghanistan policy resulted in the deployment of 5,000 additional troops and a commitment to a “conditions-based” withdrawal with no timetable.

In recent weeks, advisers have convinced the president that a slower withdrawal pace would be best in both cases and that any reduction in Afghanistan should be far smaller than the 7,000 troops he ordered, according to White House officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal decision-making. But officials acknowledged that Trump may change his mind.

In a Twitter post Wednesday, Trump congratulated himself for the near-destruction of the Islamic State caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and said that “Negotiating [sic] are proceeding well in Afghanistan after 18 years of fighting.”

Returning to the subject Thursday, Trump told reporters gathered in the Oval Office, “We’re consolidating, and a tremendous amount of good things are happening. You even look at what’s going on, and I can’t tell you that this is a guarantee, because we’re going into close to 19 years in being in Afghanistan and for the first time, they’re talking about settling, talking about making an agreement, and we bring our people back home if that happens. We’ll see what happens.”

The Pentagon so far has not altered plans for its Afghanistan troop presence. The senior administration official said that Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, was “seeking to economize” and “do what he needs to do in terms of the mission with as few forces as he can.”

“But there is no withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan without agreement on the terrorism issue, without agreement on a cease-fire and dialogue, and a political road map. . . . That is the current posture, the current understanding and the current decision,” the official said.

Just as the timing of Afghan government participation in the talks remained unknown, U.S. statements on a timetable for departure have left vague the question of the point in the process at which U.S. troops would leave.

“At one extreme, you have a cease-fire, the Taliban talking to the government and we leave,” said Dobbins, whose lengthy diplomatic career included numerous high-level crisis management and diplomatic troubleshooting assignments across the globe.

“A second and better alternative is that they stop fighting, they’re talking, and we leave when they come to an agreement. Third, and the only one likely to produce enduring success, is that they stop fighting, start talking, agree and implement the agreement, and then we leave.”

Constable reported from Kabul. Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.