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Despite intensifying violence in Afghanistan, U.S. is ‘in a hurry’ for peace

Over the past few months, violence has intensified in Afghanistan, but so have efforts to reach a negotiated peace agreement with the Taliban. Nick Schifrin asks Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, whether he faces an imminent deadline, if the country’s presidential election will be delayed and how to convince Pakistan to help the push for peace.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    New flash points in United States' longest war.

    Nick Schifrin reports on how a spike in violence in Afghanistan collides with a renewed push to negotiate peace with the Taliban.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    After 17 years, more than a trillion dollars, and tens of thousands lives lost, the violence continues in an inconclusive and grinding war in Afghanistan.

    After another week of deadly attacks, today, a massive suicide bomb rattled a foreign compound outside the Afghan capital. This year is poised to be one of the deadliest for Afghan civilians, and increased Taliban attacks have led to territorial gains for the militants.

    In 2016, the Taliban controlled 9 percent of Afghanistan's territory, and contested 25 percent. By this year, the group gained control of 14 percent in red, and contests 30 percent in yellow.

    That helps keep the government weak and elections in question. U.S. officials admit last month's parliamentary election went poorly, leading some to consider a delay in the presidential election planned for April. That's the stated cutoff point for peace talks with the Taliban, led by Zalmay Khalilzad, special envoy for Afghanistan and the former U.S. ambassador there.

  • Zalmay Khalilzad:

    I hope that the Taliban and Afghans would use the election date as a deadline to achieve a peace agreement before then.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The international community is encouraging that push for peace. At a U.N. conference in Geneva, the E.U. pledged $535 million dollars, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani asked for patience. He said a peace plan would take at least five years.

  • Ashraf Ghani:

    As the saying goes, we have been building a house while putting out the fire. We have exercised strategic patience in the face of unspeakable horrors, and have extended the hand of friendship, and delivered concrete proposals for cooperation to all our neighbors.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The most important neighbor is Pakistan, where Taliban leadership live. This week, Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan, who's sparred with President Trump, promised help.

    He said in a speech along the Afghan border, "We shall play our role in Afghan peace process, along with other stakeholders, as peace in Afghanistan is critical for achieving enduring peace in Pakistan."

    President Trump has long doubted the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and told The Washington Post yesterday that he keeps the U.S. there because — quote — "Virtually every expert that I have and speak to say, if we don't go there, they're going to be fighting over here."

    But over there, Afghans are desperate to end the seemingly endless violence, said the U.N.'s top officer in Afghanistan, Toby Lanzer.

  • Toby Lanzer:

    They have grown up knowing conflict and nothing else, so there is a tremendous hunger for peace.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And joining me now is Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation.

    He was born and grew up in Afghanistan. During the attacks on 9/11, he was working for the George W. Bush administration on the National Security Council staff. He was involved in the planning of the U.S. invasion and then constructing the government in Afghanistan.

    Ambassador Khalilzad, thank you very much. Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Zalmay Khalilzad:

    Well, it's great to be with you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We just heard you in Kabul using the word deadline.

    Have you been given a deadline by the president or anybody on his staff?

  • Zalmay Khalilzad:

    Well, everyone, starting with the president, would like to see the war in Afghanistan end, that there be reconciliation and peace among the warring factions.

    But we want a peace that is worthy of the sacrifices that have been made for the past 17 years, meaning especially that Afghanistan does not become a platform for international terrorists against the United States.

    So, yes, we are in a hurry to end the Afghan tragedy. The Afghan people deserve peace. They have been at war for 40 years.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You said you're in a hurry.

    There has been talk internally six months, nine months, how much time you actually have. As you know, there is criticism of past policies that have deadlines. So, are you setting yourself up for failure by needing to hurry so much and finish something next year?

  • Zalmay Khalilzad:

    We are in a hurry, but we are realistic also.

    We believe that the warring factions, including the Taliban, they're saying they cannot win the war, and the Afghan government says that they want a political settlement. We say we want a political settlement. We lead the international forces that are in Afghanistan.

    So, given that, this may be a moment of opportunity.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What needs to come first, reconciliation with the Taliban, or the presidential elections currently scheduled for April?

  • Zalmay Khalilzad:

    Ideally, of course, it would be good to have an agreement with the Taliban first, and then have the presidential election, because then the Talibs will also participate in a possible election, or whatever road map the Afghans agree to.

    But if they're…

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And you think that's possible, that time frame?

  • Zalmay Khalilzad:

    It is possible. Is it likely? We will have to see. It is possible, given what both sides are saying. And we will have to wait and see.

    If there is no agreement, if there is no progress with the Talib, then of course the timing of the election has already been announced today. The presidential elections will be in April.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But could they be pushed back?

  • Zalmay Khalilzad:

    Well, if there is an agreement among the Afghans, meaning Talibs and others to do so. That's really a decision for the Afghans to make.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The number one demand of the Taliban, of course, has always been the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

    What is the U.S. willing to give up, what is the U.S. willing to concede in order to try and achieve peace?

  • Zalmay Khalilzad:

    Staying in Afghanistan militarily is not an end in itself for us. Our objective has been the preclusion of use of Afghan territory by terrorists against us.

    So if we can be satisfied that we can handle the terrorist threat with less force — ultimately, of course, we want an Afghanistan that is sovereign, self-reliant, with no foreign forces on it. But how we get from here to there, for us, the key requirement would be the satisfaction that Afghanistan will never become a platform to threaten us.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You're trying to get to talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, but how can the Afghan government possibly negotiate with the Taliban when they themselves have so many issues internally and can't really agree with each other on how they run the country?

  • Zalmay Khalilzad:

    For peace to happen, Afghans must accept each other, must respect each other, and must agree on a road map, to end the tragedy of the last 40 years in Afghanistan of one party imposing or seeking to impose its will, its world view on the rest.

    And I hope that, given what the Talib leadership are saying, that they do not seek to monopolize power, to get back to status quo ante, that, in fact, there has to be a political settlement. Therefore, Afghans have to sit together, including the Talib, to come to an arrangement.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You visited Pakistan a few times in this new job. You, of course, for years have been very critical of Pakistan. The administration has tried to put a lot of pressure on Pakistan. That has not changed Pakistani behavior.

    So is there something that you're offering Pakistan in order to try and stop them from hedging?

  • Zalmay Khalilzad:

    We want to assure them — and I have engaged them, as you said, repeatedly to let them know that we are not seeking an Afghanistan as the result of a political settlement that's hostile to them.

    We want Afghanistan to be at peace with itself, but also at peace with the neighborhood, and at peace with us in terms of the terrorism threat.

    And we are engaging the Taliban. That's what they have been advocating. So, therefore, I believe that the time is now for peace in Afghanistan and in Pakistan to play a positive role.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Zalmay Khalilzad, special representative for Afghanistan reconstruction, thank you very much.

  • Zalmay Khalilzad:

    Thank you. Thank you very much.

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