** “Both the Defense Department and State Department are acting as if withdrawal is on the table, sooner or later”
** “There’s more at stake than just military victory”
ISLAMABAD (Nov 28, 2018): U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad is reaching out to many top Taliban figures as he tries to launch peace negotiations to end the war before President Donald Trump can pull the plug and order U.S. troops home, reports NBC News citing foreign diplomats.
Khalilzad has moved at a rapid pace and ventured beyond the official Taliban office in Qatar to meet other members of the insurgency, two foreign diplomats and three former U.S. officials told NBC News.
One Western diplomat, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said Trump’s special envoy to Afghanistan is “testing all channels.”
The meeting reflected how Khalilzad is moving with a sense of urgency and casting a wide net to try to persuade different elements of the insurgency to come to the table to talk peace, former officials said.
Keenly aware that President Trump has expressed impatience with the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan and that time is limited, Khalilzad, who was born in Afghanistan and served as U.S. ambassador to the country after the 9/11 attacks, has pressed ahead with his diplomacy at a swift tempo, former officials and foreign diplomats said.
U.S. officials are operating under the assumption that the president will pull the plug on the current American military mission in Afghanistan well before the U.S. presidential election in November 2020, current and former U.S. officials said.
The US, Nato and allied troops remain active in Afghanistan where the Taliban has been expanding its footprint beyond 50 percent of the country.
“Both the Defense Department and State Department are acting as if withdrawal is on the table, sooner or later,” said Thomas Jocselyn, a senior fellow at the Federation for Defense of Democracies think tank.
Afghan officials in Kabul however fear Washington’s direct talks with the Taliban could leave them sidelined and that a short timeline could backfire badly.
There are now about 14,000 US soldiers in the country as part of the Resolute Support. The Taliban has previously said the presence of foreign troops was the biggest obstacle to peace in Afghanistan.
The Taliban wants US and international forces out of the country as precondition for peace talks.
Both US and the Taliban have said they do not believe they can’t win militarily–a position Pakistan has taken for the last several years.
On being nudged to support Trump strategy in the war-torn neighborhood of Pakistan, the newly-elected PM Imran Khan had said in September that “Pakistan will only ally with the US for peace and not war”.
Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani on Wednesday announced in Geneva a 12-person team for prospective peace talks with the Taliban, as the UN renewed calls for direct negotiations between Kabul and the insurgents.
Ghani is attending a 2-day conference in Geneva focused on development and the war-torn country’s beleaguered economy as he looks toward international community to be participative of his country’s mining industry growth and natural resources.
“Our natural resources are estimated to be worth one trillion dollars. But they remain on paper,” said Ghani.
The U.S. has spent nearly $1 trillion on Afghanistan’s war, and the Trump administration is hoping to recoup some of that via its vast mineral wealth, a report by NBC News in Aug 2017 said.
The news outlet cited a recent study which pegged natural resources in the country as worth at least $3 trillion, but the Taliban remains a key hurdle to any development efforts.
“There’s more at stake than just military victory (in Afghanistan)”, the report said, adding, “Trump’s attention to the country could be a “strategic win-win” for both.
Also, a development to reckon with is Trump pulling the plug on Iran (Afghanistan’s neighbor) nuclear deal and tension between the two countries.