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Khalilzad: 'A Moment For The Afghan Leaders Not To Repeat The Mistakes Of The Past'

"The fact that the Afghans are sitting across the table for the first time in 42 years is a moment of hope and opportunity," U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad tells NPR. "But this moment is not without its own challenges."

Peace talks began in Doha, Qatar, last month between the Afghan government and the Taliban, even as deadly violence in Afghanistan continues.

Khalilzad brokered an agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, signed in February. The U.S. has "tested" the Taliban, he says. "No, we don't take them at their word," he says. "We have asked them to do things with regard to terrorism, and they have taken some of the steps that we have recommended. This is an ongoing process... they are not where we would like them to be. But we will not leave unless we are satisfied that what they have committed to, with regard to terrorism and other things, they're actually implementing."

Both Afghanistan and the U.S. must avoid mistakes of the 1990s, Khalilzad warns, when Afghanistan descended into a civil war from which the Taliban emerged and gave shelter to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. As for the U.S., "we will not make the mistake that was made after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was to abandon Afghanistan," he says.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Interview Highlights

On the Taliban's incentives to talk peace

I think there are several incentives that they have. One is that they would like us to withdraw. ... But at the same time, they would like to be accepted as a legitimate partner in governing Afghanistan. That means they have to agree with other Afghans that they recognize that what happened in the '90s did not work. It was a failure and that their relationship with al-Qaida resulted in the attacks by the United States in Afghanistan and the Taliban losing power. They don't want to repeat that.

I have to say, we have tested them. They have demonstrated so far that they are meeting those tests. There have been no attacks on U.S. forces... And they said they will sit with other Afghans, and they are sitting with other Afghans. Now, we will see whether they do the remaining things that are required of them.

On Pakistan's role in the region

Well, I still stick with the idea of trust but verify. But I want to add, though, that Pakistan has been helpful to the effort that we have made in the last two years, and they have encouraged the Talibs to enter negotiations with the government and they have encouraged the Talibs to reduce violence. They have also been helpful in terms of interaction with the Afghan leaders. ... now they see peace in Afghanistan as vital for peace in Pakistan...

Part of the concern that the Pakistanis have had ...is that the Afghan Taliban is now accompanied, if you like, parallel now [is] a Pakistani-based Taliban or a Pakistani Taliban, and they don't want those Taliban to be able to operate from Afghanistan... And we are encouraging Afghanistan and Pakistan to sign an agreement that neither side's territory can be used by terrorist groups or extremist groups against the other. And I hope that we will achieve results in that regard as well.

On the rights and aspirations of Afghan women

Well, it may be for the first time that Afghans sitting across the table to negotiate peace have women as a part of the delegation... [Female members of the government negotiating team] say they are being respected in the negotiating room and that they engage the Taliban directly and protect or defend their rights. I think that's positive. ...

And we have told the Talibs that since they want to be treated as a normal player and have good relations with the United States as part of a future Afghan government, what happens with regard to the rights of women will be a key factor in shaping U.S. policy with regard to that government. ...Discrimination against women — going back to the situation that existed under the Taliban and closing schools for girls and young women, in other words — could be a red line that would have the most negative effect on U.S. policy towards Afghanistan.

On what may happen if negotiations fail

The United States will not walk away from protecting its national security interests. We will not make the mistake that was made after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was to abandon Afghanistan. And the consequences were grave for Afghanistan because of the mistakes the Afghan leaders made. Rather than coming together, forming a government, they fought each other while the rest of the world benefited from the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan and the Soviet disintegration, which was partially helped by their conquest or attempted conquest of Afghanistan.

This is an opportunity for Afghans to seize the opportunity that is provided to them to negotiate a roadmap where groups of different ideas or ideologies, values, can coexist in the same country. And at the same time, there is a lesson for the United States that we cannot abandon Afghanistan. We cannot turn our back.

It doesn't mean we must maintain a military presence or continue a war just to have a military presence — but that if the conditions are right, [if] we don't feel threatened, that we can withdraw our military forces or adjust them accordingly, but maintain focus, relations, economic assistance, political relations, diplomatic relations, to encourage the consolidation of a peace agreement, should it be arrived at by the Afghans. But this is a moment for the Afghan leaders not to repeat the mistakes of the past, to build a consensus-based system where all key players can participate... and perhaps peace in Afghanistan can change the dynamics even regionally.

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