The U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan says he is optimistic that the Taliban and Afghan government will begin peace talks, adding that U.S. troops could be pulled out ahead of schedule if all goes well.
Zalmay Khalilzad said on June 1 that there’s been a lot of progress as the Afghan government speeds up the release of prisoners, which is expected to lead to intra-Afghan negotiations.
“We are in a good place," Khalilzad said, adding that levels of violence in Afghanistan have remained relatively low since May's Eid al-Fitr cease-fire. "We are optimistic that finally we're moving forward to the start of the intra-Afghan negotiations."
Speaking to reporters in Washington, Khalilzad did not set a date and cautioned that "still more needs to be done" on freeing prisoners.
The United States and the Taliban signed an agreement in February aimed at ending the longest military action in U.S. history. The deal lays out a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in return for security commitments from the Taliban.
It also stipulates that Kabul must free 5,000 Taliban prisoners, while the militants are to release 1,000 captives.
As of last week, Afghan authorities had released 1,100 Taliban militants since early April; the militant group had freed 245 members of security forces, civil servants, and other people it had been holding.
Under the February agreement, the United States will pull troops out of Afghanistan by mid-2021 in exchange for the insurgents' commitments to keep out Al-Qaeda and other foreign extremists.
US officials have said that troops already are returning home and the withdrawal is ahead of schedule.
Khalilzad said if President Donald Trump thinks that conditions have been met, then it could go faster, “but the key thing is whether the conditions have been met."
The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and toppled the Taliban regime, saying it had provided a safe haven to Al-Qaeda, which carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Khalilzad downplayed a recent report to the UN Security Council that said Al-Qaeda and the Taliban "remain close" and were in regular consultations over the negotiations with the United States.
"The Taliban regularly consulted with Al-Qaeda during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honor their historical ties," independent U.N. sanctions monitors said in the report.
It said the ties stem from friendship, intermarriage, shared struggle, and ideological sympathy.
Khalilzad said it largely covered a period before the February deal.
"There is progress, but we will continue to monitor those activities very closely," he said of Taliban ties with Al-Qaeda, adding that if the Taliban fails to keep its promises, Washington could reconsider its own.
The United States still has about 12,000 troops in Afghanistan, and Washington pays about $4 billion a year to maintain the Afghan military. The deal committed the United States to reduce its military footprint in Afghanistan to 8,600 troops by mid-July.