- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 19, 2019

President Trump has declared peace talks with Taliban militants in Afghanistan in America’s longest war were “dead” earlier this month, but his top negotiator and a senior State Department official Thursday hinted there is a chance they can be revived.

Veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, who led nearly a year of talks with the Taliban on a peace settlement, gave a classified briefing to members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Thursday, leaving at least one lawmaker believing there was room for more diplomacy.

“My personal opinion is that they will resume,” Rep. Ted Yoho, Florida Republican, said in an interview after the classified briefing with Mr. Khalilzad.

The session was believed to be Mr. Khalilzad’s first extensive description to lawmakers of the course of the Taliban talks, the deal “in principle” announced at the beginning of September, and the sequence of events where Mr. Trump first planned and then called off a secret Camp David summit with Taliban leaders and the president of the U.S.-backed Afghan government in Kabul intended to seal the agreement.

In a later open hearing, acting Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells told the House panel the U.S.-Taliban talks had “broken new ground in this last round of negotiations that took place,” and also hinted the Trump administration has not ruled out a return to the bargaining table.

“We would like to see the Taliban take actions that would allow us to return to negotiations,” she said.

Mr. Yoho explained that he was satisfied with Mr. Khalilzad’s answers “on some things” dealing with the state of the Afghan mission, including “gains made on education, some of the infrastructure, [and] women going to school.”

“We just want to make sure that gains we’ve made, they build upon that,” Mr. Yoho said. “It’s a work in progress.”

But the overture to the Taliban has proven divisive within Mr. Trump’s own administration, and been watched with growing unease in Kabul, where the government of President Ashraf Ghani was excluded from Mr. Khalilzad’s negotiations. Critics say the Taliban couldn’t be trusted to carry out promises to break with terror groups such as al Qaeda and Islamic State in Afghanistan or to engage in good-faith power-sharing talks with the Kabul government.

Mr. Trump said he called off the Camp David talks in response to a Taliban terror strike in Kabul on the eve of the meeting that killed a dozen people, including a U.S. soldier, and said the negotiations were “dead.”

House Democrats were harshly critical of the month of whipsawed diplomacy, which has been followed by intensified fighting in Afghanistan.
“We’ve seen the Afghan reconciliation process go off the rails in a spectacular fashion,” House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Eliot Engel said during an open hearing.

Mr. Engel had issued a subpoena for Mr. Khalilzad’s testimony last week after three requests sent to the State Department for a briefing for the committee went unanswered.

The New York Democrat announced late Wednesday he had struck an agreement with the department to hold a closed-door briefing with the U.S.’s special envoy with committee members.

The tentative deal would have quickly withdrawn some 5,000 of the 14,000 U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan, with a conditions-based withdrawal of the remainder of the force in less than a year. Mr. Trump has long been critical of the costly, stalemated U.S. military mission there.

Thursday’s hearings came just hours after a drone strike blamed on U.S. forces killed 16 people in a farming town in Afghanistan’s Nanghar province. Col. Sonny Legget of the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, told the Associated Press said the U.S. military was “working with local officials to determine the facts.”

Hours after, a suicide bomb — later claimed by the Taliban — rocked a hospital in southern Afghanistan, killing at least 20 people and wounding over 90 others.

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