U.S. envoy hopes for Afghan peace deal before April election
U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said on Sunday that he hoped the Taliban and Afghan government would strike a peace deal within five months – even as the militants inflict record high casualties on security forces.
Back in Kabul after a second round of regional meetings that are believed to have included the Taliban, Afghan-born Khalilzad said he remained "cautiously optimistic" for an end to the 17-year conflict.
The former U.S. ambassador to Kabul has been spearheading American efforts to convince the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government. His appointment as U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation in September was followed weeks later by a meeting with the group's representatives in Qatar.
But there are growing fears that any progress towards peace could be derailed by the April 20 presidential election, which is expected to be fiercely contested and marred by violence.
"I remain cautiously optimistic," Khalilzad told Afghan media at a briefing. "I hope that the Taliban and other Afghans would use the (presidential) election as a deadline to achieve a peace agreement before then – that would be my hope."
The Taliban are saying that they don't believe that they can succeed militarily ... I think there's an opportunity for reconciliation and peace."
The U.S. embassy in Kabul sent a recording of Khalilzad's remarks to foreign journalists based in Kabul, who had not been invited to attend the briefing.
Khalilzad's comments come as the Taliban step up attacks on Afghanistan's beleaguered security forces, which are suffering an unprecedented level of casualties.
The death toll among Afghan soldiers and police is nearing 30,000 since the start of 2015, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani revealed this month – a figure far higher than anything previously acknowledged.
In a recent report, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) cited the NATO mission in Kabul as saying this summer's toll had been worse than ever for Afghan forces.
Recent Taliban attacks on ethnic Hazara-dominated districts in the south-eastern province of Ghazni have left hundreds dead, forced thousands of families to flee their homes and raised fears of sectarian violence.
Most Hazaras belong to the Shia branch of Islam, while the Taliban are Sunni and largely ethnic Pashtuns.
Khalilzad said he recognised the "complexity" of the conflict, but insisted: "I would like to make as much progress as possible as soon as possible". His comments underscore an apparent increasing sense of urgency in the White House and among American diplomats for a deal to be done quickly.
Washington is facing competition from Moscow, which this month hosted an international gathering on Afghanistan that was attended by the Taliban.
Khalilzad called for the selection of negotiating teams to enable talks between the militants and Kabul to start. (AFP)