WASHINGTON – The United States on Friday found backing from rivals Russia and China on the key formula of a peace deal it is negotiating in Afghanistan: withdrawing troops in return for Taliban pledges not to welcome foreign extremists.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy who is set shortly to hold his latest round of talks with the Taliban, called the consensus a “milestone” in efforts to end the war after he met Russian and Chinese representatives in Moscow.
A joint statement by the three countries called for an “inclusive Afghan-led” peace process and outlined points expected to feature in an eventual agreement.
“The three sides call for an orderly and responsible withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan as part of the overall peace process,” said the statement issued by the U.S. State Department.
They also said that the Taliban have made a “commitment” to fight the extremist Islamic State group and sever ties to al-Qaida.
The Taliban have promised to “ensure the areas they control will not be used to threaten any other country,” the statement said, calling on them to prevent any “terrorist recruiting, training and fundraising.”
Khalilzad said that the statement, along with his talks earlier in the week in London with European envoys, “means we have an emerging international consensus on U.S. approach to end the war and assurances terrorism never again emanates from Afghanistan.”
“More to do but important milestone,” he tweeted.
U.S. President Donald Trump is eager to end America’s longest-ever war, which was launched in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, when the then-Taliban regime gave shelter to al-Qaida.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is accelerating a plan to cut up to half of the workforce at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul starting at the end of next month, sparking concern it will undermine the fragile Afghan peace process, U.S. officials and congressional aides said.
Pompeo’s order for the largest U.S. diplomatic mission comes about a year earlier than expected, a surprise development given the meager progress in talks with the Taliban.
The Taliban, their negotiating leverage bolstered by Trump’s public impatience to end the war, could dig in further because they would regard a large embassy drawdown as more confirmation of his eagerness to reduce the U.S. role in Afghanistan.
The Kabul embassy is a testament to the size of America’s investment in Afghanistan since it went to war there. With a workforce of about 1,500, the heavily fortified compound underwent an $800 million expansion four years ago and now includes 700 beds for staffers.
A drastic embassy workforce cut will likely reverberate throughout Afghanistan.
It could erode a strained U.S. relationship with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government a month after the allies publicly clashed over Kabul’s exclusion from the negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar.
Ghani “would see this as another step in a betrayal,” said Thomas Lynch, a U.S. National Defense University fellow focused on Afghanistan and former adviser to the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
U.S. officials and congressional aides said that among the concerns about a major drawdown was the risk that it could alarm NATO allies, already at odds with Trump over a host of issues, and ordinary Afghans.
Russia and China both have strong interests in Afghanistan. Some 14,000 Soviet soldiers were killed in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 in a conflict with U.S.-backed Islamic guerrillas.
China has been stepping up its involvement in Afghanistan both militarily and economically as it voices worries that militants could sneak into its restive Muslim-majority Xinjiang region.
Khalilzad will also hold separate talks during his latest trip with Pakistan and India, which have strongly different views on Afghanistan.
One major sticking point is the Taliban’s refusal to negotiate with the government of Ghani, which has wide-ranging international support.
The United States, Russia and China called on the Taliban to speak as soon as possible with a “broad, representative Afghan delegation that includes the government.”
One country that has criticized the U.S. approach is Iran, whose foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, recently said that the United States had alienated Afghans by turning the Taliban into kingmakers.