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U.S. Warns Kabul It May Withdraw All Forces By May 1 If Peace Talks Do Not Progress

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad attends the Intra-Afghan Dialogue talks in the Qatari capital Doha in July 2019.
Karim Jaafar
AFP via Getty Images
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad attends the Intra-Afghan Dialogue talks in the Qatari capital Doha in July 2019.

The top U.S. negotiator for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, met with Pakistan's army chief Monday in Islamabad as the U.S. is threatening a full military withdrawal from Afghanistan if stalled peace talks do not resume between Kabul and the Taliban. Khalilzad's visit followed stops last week in Kabul and Doha, Qatar, meeting with Afghan and Taliban officials.

Media reports in the region over the weekend said Secretary of State Antony Blinken had told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that a full withdrawal of forces by May 1 was among the options being considered by the U.S.

Blinken's remarks were contained in a letter to Ghani, according to the Afghan TOLO News agency, which published what it said was the text of the letter. The Afghan government acknowledged receipt of a Blinken letter without confirming its contents.

A State Department spokesperson said, "As a general matter, we do not comment on alleged correspondence with foreign leaders," but appeared to confirm the warning to Ghani contained within the letter. "We have not made any decisions about our force posture in Afghanistan after May 1," the spokesperson said. "All options remain on the table."

U.S.-sponsored talks between Afghanistan's government and the Taliban have foundered over the past year as fighting between the two groups has continued to escalate and divisions within the Kabul government have prevented a coherent policy toward the Taliban.

According to the text published by TOLO News, Blinken in his letter bluntly warned Ghani that after a withdrawal of U.S. forces "the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains."

"I am making this clear to you," Blinken wrote, "so that you understand the urgency of my tone."

Blinken said the U.S. is calling for a U.N.-sponsored meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and the U.S. "to discuss a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan." He also called on Turkey to host a meeting of Afghan and Taliban negotiators to reach a peace agreement

TOLO News also reported that Khalilzad had presented a proposed framework for the formation of a transitional government. It calls for a 15-member high council of Islamic jurisprudence to provide "Islamic guidance," with members appointed by the current government and the Taliban. It also calls for decommissioning the Taliban's war infrastructure in Afghanistan and neighboring countries – like Pakistan.

In his letter to Ghani, Blinken also expressed concern that "the security situation will worsen and that the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains" following a U.S. withdrawal. He proposed a 90-day "Reduction-in-Violence" intended to prevent an anticipated Taliban spring offensive.

Saturday, the Afghan president again reiterated his opposition to a transitional government and another official close to President Ghani bluntly said there was little hope for peace if negotiations were limited to the Taliban. "The ongoing war is not an internal war, but it has foreign dimensions, said National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib, according to TOLO News. "That's why only negotiations with the Taliban will not lead to a durable peace."

Diaa Hadid reported from Islamabad. NPR State Department correspondent Michele Kelemen contributed reporting.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.
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