Zalmay Khalilzad, the United States special envoy, is hopeful that the Taliban and the Afghan government can strike a peace deal within five months, despite the militant group inflicting record high casualties on security forces and the fact that the Taliban refuses to deal with the American backed government.
Back in Kabul after the second round of regional meetings that are believed to have included the Taliban, Washington’s Afghan-born representative said he remained “cautiously optimistic” for an end to the 17-year conflict.
The former US ambassador to Kabul has been spearheading American efforts to convince the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government.
His appointment in September was followed weeks later by a meeting with the group’s representatives in Qatar.
But there are growing fears that any progress towards peace could be derailed by the April 20 presidential election, which is expected to be marred by violence.
“I remain cautiously optimistic,” Khalilzad told Afghan media at a briefing. “I hope that the Taliban and other Afghans would use the [presidential] election as a deadline to achieve a peace agreement before then – that would be my hope.
“The Taliban are saying that they don’t believe that they can succeed militarily … I think there’s an opportunity for reconciliation and peace,” he added.
The US embassy in Kabul sent a recording of Khalilzad’s remarks to foreign journalists based there, who had not been invited to attend the briefing.
Still, Khalilzad’s comments follow increased Taliban attacks on Afghanistan’s security forces with the death toll among soldiers and police nearing 30,000 since the start of 2015, President Ashraf Ghani revealed this month.
The figure was significantly higher than anything previously acknowledged.
In a report, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction cited the NATO mission in Kabul as saying this summer’s toll had been worse than expected for Afghan forces.
Indeed, Khalilzad said he recognized the “complexity” of the conflict but insisted: “I would like to make as much progress as possible as soon as possible.”
His comments underscore an apparent increasing sense of urgency in President Donald Trump’s administration and America’s diplomatic corp for a deal to be done quickly.