Taliban momentum on the battlefield and divisions within Afghanistan’s central government are complicating negotiations over a withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country, key lawmakers say.
“There’s real concern there about the Taliban continuing to gain operational space,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican who sits on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, told the Washington Examiner. “That, I think, combined with some of the instability in the Afghan national government is concerning.”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s team has presented an optimistic outlook in recent days after a diplomatic clash with President Trump’s administration in March.
One of his top advisers faulted Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. diplomat leading the negotiations with the Taliban, for leaving Kabul ignorant about the high-stakes talks. U.S. lawmakers are more pessimistic, though the State Department touted “slow and steady progress” in the negotiations.
“I think that the ambassador has done an amazing job at bringing the parties to the table that many in the U.S. government probably thought would never be able to get to the table,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told reporters Wednesday. “And while he has an incredibly tough job, I think that he is doing something that is important to the president, to the secretary, and to the American people: to try to get a peaceful solution in Afghanistan.”
Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, affirmed that Khalilzad is “very talented” and credited him with the “first breakthrough” of establishing a framework for talks with the Taliban. But the former rulers of Afghanistan still refuse to meet with Ghani, as they deny the central government in Kabul has any legitimacy.
“It’s hard to have a negotiation if you won’t sit down with one of the principal parties to the potential agreement,” Reed told the Washington Examiner. “Until there is a recognition that they have to deal with the government, I don’t see what the negotiations lead to.”
Ghani’s team hopes the Taliban will be forced to talk with the U.S.-backed government, claiming they have not gained territory.
Khalilzad appeared before the Foreign Relations Committee earlier Wednesday, in a classified setting. The lawmakers who attended the briefing were tight-lipped. “I don’t want to say anything that would any way jeopardize those negotiations,” a reticent committee Chairman James Risch, R-Idaho, said after the meeting.
Other lawmakers with regular access to the intelligence reports about Afghanistan expressed greater misgivings about the fighting.
“I don’t want to contradict what they’re saying,” said Rubio, who did not attend Wednesday’s briefing, to the Washington Examiner. “But it’s concerning how much they control now, let’s put it that way. And there’s real concern about if that government can withstand a rapid U.S. and international pullout.”
Reed, who is also a senior member of the Intelligence Committee, suggested the Taliban are actually gaining territory.