The U.S. envoy in Afghanistan said on Wednesday that a peaceful end to the 17-year conflict requires the Taliban to engage in direct talks with the Afghan government, which they have consistently refused.
Zalmay Khalilzad spoke to reporters in Kabul on his latest visit to the war-torn country, where he is at the center of a flurry of diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the conflict that began with the U.S. invasion of 2001.
“The road to peace will require Taliban to sit with other Afghans, including the government,” Khalilzad said. “There is a consensus among all regional partners on this point,” he added, according to quotes sent by the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
The insurgents have long refused to hold direct talks with the Kabul government, which they dismiss as a puppet of Washington. Taliban representatives have met several times with U.S. officials in recent months, but earlier this week threatened to suspend the fledgling peace efforts, accusing the U.S. of changing the agenda of the talks and “unilaterally” adding new subjects.
“If the Talibs want to talk, we can talk, if they want to fight we can fight. We hope that the Talibs want to make peace,” Khalilzad said in response to the threat.
The envoy arrived in Kabul late Tuesday, where he met with the country’s political leaders. On his third tour of the region since his appointment in September, he had previously traveled to India, the United Arab Emirates and China. He is expected next in Pakistan.
His tour comes shortly after U.S. officials said in December that President Donald Trump intends to withdraw as many as half of the 14,000 U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan.
Khalilzad on Wednesday said that if the Taliban choose to continue fighting, “the United States will stand with the Afghan government and the Afghan people and support them.” He dismissed reports the U.S. wanted to maintain military bases in the country. “We have never said we want permanent military bases in Afghanistan,” he said. “What we want is to see this conflict end through negotiation, and to continue our partnership with Afghanistan, and to ensure no terrorist threatens either of us.” In the long run the U.S. is seeking a military, diplomatic and economic relationship with Afghanistan, he added.
Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said he hopes for fresh talks with the Taliban “very soon.”
The U.S. is not the only country dancing around talks with the militants. Russia and Iran have held meetings with the Taliban in recent months, while China has also made overtures. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan are all participating in the U.S. efforts.