KABUL -- The U.S. peace envoy seeking to negotiate an end to the nearly 18-year war in Afghanistan said peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban will determine whether the presidential election slated for September 28 is held.
In an interview with RFE/RL in the Afghan capital on July 31, Zalmay Khalilzad said the vote “depends on the outcome of the negotiations among the Afghans.”
“We support any outcome that is reached,” said Khalilzad, a veteran diplomat and a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. “But until that outcome is reached, we support [holding] the election.”
U.S. officials have privately floated the possibility that the vote could be canceled in the event of a peace settlement and the formation of an interim government that the Taliban would join. There is support among the Taliban and Afghan opposition figures, but President Ashraf Ghani has strongly rejected it.
U.S. officials have said they hope to reach a peace agreement by September 1.
Khalilzad has held eight rounds of peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar, with both sides saying they have made significant progress on several components of a peace deal. But the Afghan government has been left out of the negotiations, with the Taliban refusing to deal with what they call a "U.S. puppet."
Khalilzad has said a comprehensive peace agreement will cover four key issues: the withdrawal of foreign troops, a Taliban guarantee to prevent terrorist attacks from Afghanistan, inter-Afghan dialogue leading to a political settlement, and a permanent cease-fire. In acknowledging the delicate situation, he has stressed that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”
Khalilzad, who was in Kabul for the past nine days for talks with Afghans, said his visit was "the most productive" since he was made a special envoy in September last year.
"We have reached an agreement with the Afghan government about the next steps towards reaching an agreement with the Taliban and towards peace," he said.
In a Twitter post on July 31, Khalilzad said he was off for another round of talks with the militants, and "if the Taliban do their part, we will do ours, and conclude the agreement we have been working on."
A bilateral U.S.-Taliban agreement to come first covers the withdrawal of foreign forces in exchange for guarantees by the Taliban not to harbor terrorist groups.
That deal will be a prelude to intra-Afghan peace negotiations on a political settlement and a permanent cease-fire.
The Taliban has said it will only negotiate with Kabul when Washington commits to withdrawing its troops.
Khalilzad stressed that the internationally-backed Kabul government would be only one actor in the intra-Afghans talks, alongside senior opposition leaders, civil society members, and women.
"A negotiating team representing the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is being finalized," said Khalilzad. "At the same time, a technical team that would support the negotiation team is being finalized. These are positive steps."
In expectations that Washington was close to agreeing an agreement with the Taliban, Afghanistan's Ministry of Peace Affairs announced on July 31 that it had appointed a 15-member delegation to negotiate with the Taliban.
It was unclear where those talks would be held, although reports said it could be in a European country.
Khalilzad also defended remarks by U.S. President Donald Trump, who said on July 22 that “If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I could win that war in a week. I just don't want to kill 10 million people.”
The controversial remarks prompted anger in Afghanistan, where the government demanded that Trump clarify his comments.
Khalilzad said what the president meant was that "war is not the solution and a lot of people will be killed if we continue the war."
"I think [Trump's] intention is to solve the Afghanistan problem -- and that's why he appointed me -- through a peaceful way. Peace is the priority," he said.
When asked why the war in Afghanistan had dragged on for almost 18 years, Khalilzad said some local and international actors were against peace.
"There are some who benefit from the continuation of the war and take advantage of the war," he said.
U.S. and Afghan officials have long accused Pakistan of supporting the Taliban. Russia and Iran have also established contacts with the militant group.
On Pakistan, Khalilzad said he had witnessed a “positive change” in their policies towards Afghanistan, its western neighbor.
"They want to help," said Khalilzad, referring to Islamabad. "But we always want Pakistan to take further steps."
U.S. Envoy Backs Afghan Presidential Election If No Peace Deal