Describing the current phase a defining moment in the history of Afghanistan, US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad admitted that last mile travel to reach peace in the war-torn country remained challenging.
Participating in a program along with ambassadors of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Afghanistan through a video link organized by the Washington-based US Institute of Peace, Khalilzad said the US was committed to working with the Afghan government and Taliban to get to the objective of satisfying the concerns about the prisoner release as a confidence-building measure ahead of the inter-Afghan negotiations.
Prisoner issue main hindrance in Afghan Peace Process: Khalilzad
“Two issues stand in the way: one is the issue of prisoners that have been agreed to be released or exchanged between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan. The government has released more than 4,400, according to its numbers, out of 5,000. That has been the goal and the Taliban have in turn released 861 from 1,000 prisoners,” said the peace envoy.
He added that the country was never closer to peace as it has been today.
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The Afghan-born American Khalilzad, 69, was appointed the special representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation in September 2018 by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Killings have significantly declined ahead of Afghan Peace Process
He became the architect of the agreement with the Taliban in February in Doha, paving the way for the withdrawal of US troops in exchange for guarantees that the country would not be used for international terrorism.
Admitting that the issue of violence was also a source of concern, he, however, said the number of Afghan security forces killed is 35%-40% less compared to the same period of last year.
Also, the number of civilians killed is significantly lower for the same period compared to the previous, and since the signing of the agreement, Taliban have not attacked American or coalition soldiers in Afghanistan.
He said the larger objective of peace in Afghanistan was to integrate the region for trade and development, adding that starting with Pakistan, the US was looking to integrate South and Central Asia, which have remained least connected regions, due to violence in Afghanistan.
Further withdrawal of US troops is conditional
Khalilzad said while the US has completed the first phase of withdrawal of forces to bring them down to 8,600, the rest of the drawdown was conditional.
The US relations with Iran were also playing a spoiler, as the country was not coming forward to support the peace process, he noted.
“If I take seriously what the deputy foreign minister of Iran said in Kabul recently, he asked for the complete withdrawal of US military. In a sense, he wanted us to abandon Afghanistan without the peace process, which means war,” said the US envoy.
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Khalilzad said the violence was the greatest impediment in the way of investment and harnessing the resources in Afghanistan.
The US, along with its partners, was ready to invest and help in the development of the war-torn country, he stressed.
“We are already spending $38 billion annually on the military in Afghanistan. Our allies are also spending huge sums on the military.
“Imagine if a portion of this is spent and invested in economic development and opportunities,” he also said, adding that it was possible only after peace returns to the country.
Afghan Peace Process is the need of the hour for Afghanistan
The latest truce between the government and Taliban fighters is only the third official respite in Afghanistan’s conflict since the war started in 2001, with other ceasefires in June 2018 and May this year to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
The truces prompted widespread relief across Afghanistan but were short-lived, with the insurgents returning to the fight straight afterwards to resume near-daily attacks.
The US-Taliban deal stated that the militants and Kabul should start direct peace talks on March 10, following the completion of the prisoner swap.
But that date passed amid political disarray in Kabul and disagreements over the prisoner exchange, with Afghan authorities saying some of the released Taliban inmates were returning to the battlefield.
Highlighting the toll on civilian and military forces in the months since the deal, Ghani said more than 3,500 Afghan troops had been killed.
He said 775 civilians had also been killed and another 1,609 wounded since the deal.
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has blamed the Taliban for almost half of civilian casualties during the first half of 2020, with less than one-quarter blamed on Afghan forces.