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Interview: Khalilzad Urges Political Deal Between Warring Afghan Sides To Prevent ‘Protracted Conflict’

Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad.

U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has called on the country’s warring parties to reach a political settlement amid a blistering Taliban offensive across the war-torn nation.

“The only way to solve [the war] in Afghanistan and end the violence is a political agreement,” Khalilzad told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi by telephone on August 2, urging the sides to speed up negotiations.

He said both sides should focus on finding a formula for the “formation of a new government that is acceptable to both parties.”

The prospects for a negotiated end to the decades-long war have plummeted as the militant group has captured scores of rural districts and attempted to seize major cities since the start of the final withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan on May 1.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has vowed to push the Taliban back and said in a speech in parliament on August 2 that the insurgents “do not believe in a lasting or just peace.”

But Khalilzad, the architect of the 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement that paved the way for the foreign pullout by August 31, warned of a “protracted war” if the Afghan government and the Taliban focus on a “military solution” to end hostilities.

Washington’s point person in talks aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan, Khalilzad called on the government and Taliban leaders to put the interests of the country before their own.

Under the U.S.-Taliban deal signed in February 2020, all foreign troops were to depart Afghanistan in exchange for security guarantees from the Taliban, which pledged to negotiate a political settlement and permanent cease-fire with the Afghan government.

Intra-Afghan talks that began in September have made little progress, hampered by deep mistrust, militant violence, and a huge gulf between the Taliban and Afghan representatives on key issues.

In the wake of U.S. President Joe Biden's April decision to withdraw the remaining 3,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan without setting any conditions, the Taliban immediately intensified its attacks.

Since May 1, the Taliban has reportedly seized control of nearly half of the country’s districts and several key border crossings, prompting fears the insurgents are attempting a forcible takeover of the country.

Representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban held talks in Qatar on July 17, but there was little concrete progress. Both sides committed to speeding up the negotiations.

Khalilzad said the lack of progress in peace talks has led “both sides to focus on a military solution.”

“Both sides must understand that there is no military solution in Afghanistan,” said Khalilzad. “The Taliban is a reality that the government cannot eliminate. Likewise, the Taliban cannot establish by force a government that would be accepted by the majority of Afghans and the international community.”

His comment came as Afghan security forces, backed by civilian militias and sporadic U.S. air strikes, were battling to stop a major city from falling to the insurgents.

On August 3, government forces and Taliban militants were locked in fierce clashes in and around three major cities: Herat in the west and Kandahar and Lashkar Gah in the south.

'We Ran For Our Lives': Afghans Flee Fighting As Taliban Assaults Regional Capitals
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The fate of all three cities could be key to whether the Kabul government can maintain control of major urban areas and much of the rest of the country without international troops who have been fighting the Taliban for nearly two decades.

The heavy fighting has displaced thousands of people and triggered warnings of a looming humanitarian crisis.

The United Nations on August 3 warned of a "catastrophic" impact due to the fighting and urged Afghanistan's warring sides to better protect civilians caught up in the intensifying conflict.

The plea follows increasingly dire accusations of abuses against noncombatants by Taliban militants in eastern Afghanistan and fresh condemnation of an attack last week against a UN compound in Herat.

Written by Frud Bezhan based on an interview by Zarif Nazar.

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    Zarif Nazar

    Zarif Nazar is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.