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Little Progress On Afghan Taliban-Gov’t Talks, Says U.S. Diplomat

John Bass, a career Senior Foreign Service officer, is the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan.
John Bass, a career Senior Foreign Service officer, is the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- John Bass, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, says that despite some progress in negotiations between the U.S. government and the hard-line Islamist Taliban movement, the insurgents have yet to seriously engage with Kabul or Afghan society.

RFE/RL: How do you see the progress with the Taliban after the conclusion of the most recent round of talks in the Qatari capital, Doha?

John Bass: Last week, Ambassador [Zalmay] Khalilzad finished another week of discussions with representatives of the Taliban. He made a little bit of progress on a couple of the issues related to satisfying our concerns about Afghanistan being a source of threats and terrorism against the United States and against any other country in the future.

But, unfortunately, we didn’t make much progress on some other aspects. There has not been progress to address the Afghan people’s desire, which we very much support, to see a reduction in violence or a cease-fire. And we have yet to see the Taliban seriously engage and sit with the Afghan government and the wider society to address those issues that only Afghans can decide among themselves.

RFE/RL: The United States appears to be attempting to reduce its spending and personnel in Afghanistan. What kind of agreements would Washington honor after a possible peace deal, specifically regarding security and economic assistance?

John Bass: First, we hope to enjoy a strong relationship between the government of Afghanistan and the United States and the people of the two countries after the conflict is settled and peace returns to Afghanistan. We have done an awful lot together and helped many people in this country to live lives of peace and dignity even in the middle of the conflict. We have helped to grow the economy and create opportunity for many Afghans to gain an education and learn important skills that help them contribute to the future growth of the country.

We would like to continue that work but, of course, how much of that work we can do beyond humanitarian assistance will depend very much on the terms of the settlement and the willingness of the Taliban to rejoin society and live in an Afghan society that is part of the larger community of nations that respect each other’s sovereignty and work together to ensure they do not pose threats to each other.

RFE/RL: What would the United States expect, specifically from the Taliban, to continue its humanitarian and economic assistance? How do you expect to preserve the human rights, women rights, civil society organizations and lasting security?

John Bass: Let me first say these are central questions in any discussion … between the government and the people of Afghanistan on the one hand and the Taliban on the other. We believe strongly that a durable settlement to the conflict — one that endures well past a signature on a piece of paper — is a settlement that is arrived at among Afghans. It is more important what Afghans think about these issues than what the U.S. government thinks.

However, we do have strong views. If a future Afghanistan wants to continue to receive support from the U.S. government, it will need to meet international standards for basic human rights and legal protections. And importantly, maintain a commitment to the principle of equality before the law and the rule of law.

I know from discussions with many of my fellow ambassadors that many other governments feel equally strongly about the importance of a future Afghan government protecting basic rights. They will make decisions of their future support for Afghanistan depending on whether those rights are protected and respected.

RFE/RL: What kind of support is the United States prepared to offer for the scheduled Afghan presidential elections this year? Do you see the Afghan electoral commission as capable of adhering to international standards?

John Bass: The United States has strongly supported elections in Afghanistan since 2001. We are prepared to provide considerable financial support and some technical advice to the conduct of the upcoming presidential elections. We have seen some decisions by the electoral commission that indicate the probability of elections occurring on time in September is increasing.

But there is still a lot that the electoral commission, the relevant ministries that support the electoral commission, the candidates and parties, and the wider society have to do to make sure elections can occur. There is no extra time in a very demanding calendar. It is well past time for everyone who wants to see an election occur on time to focus on achieving the best possible election.