Afghanistan envoy briefs skeptical lawmakers on peace talks

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WASHINGTON (AP) — An envoy to Afghanistan was met with skepticism Wednesday on Capitol Hill as he briefed lawmakers on peace talks with the Taliban aimed at ending the 17-year war.

Lawmakers were tight-lipped as they left the classified meeting with special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, but the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Jim Risch of Idaho, says he believes Khalilzad is making progress. However, he added, "the issue always is how much progress, and can you get to the finish line?"

Since Khalilzad was appointed to lead peace talks with the Taliban by the Trump administration in September, his efforts have been largely shrouded in secrecy. It was Khalilzad's first appearance before Congress since his appointment after months of requests from lawmakers for a briefing.

Initial rounds of talks have yielded mixed results, and violence has been on the rise in Afghanistan, with the Taliban expanding their hold in the country.

"Would you want it quicker? Yes. Would you want to get there sooner? Yes. But I'm not here to criticize," Risch said. "It's a difficult situation, no question about it."

Khalilzad has said that he hopes to broker a "roadmap" for Afghanistan and that all talks would take place in accordance with the principle that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed." Maintaining a hectic travel schedule, he has crisscrossed the globe meeting the Taliban on several occasions, as well as powerbrokers in Kabul, including Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Initial rounds of talks have focused on the withdrawal of American troops in exchange for guarantees that Afghanistan will not be used again as a staging area for attacks on the United States. However, the Afghan government is not yet a party to the peace talks, a source of tension between Kabul and Washington that could potentially undercut the very administration the U.S. has spent billions supporting.

"I — I think like everyone else — want to bring our troops home as soon as we can, but how we ultimately achieve that is critically important," said Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, a senior committee member. Wednesday's briefing was the second high-level Afghanistan briefing this week, after intelligence officials on Monday gave lawmakers their assessment, also behind closed doors.

Menendez, who attended both briefings, remarked Wednesday on the "deep conflict between the intelligence community's views on this question (of the prospects for peace) and Ambassador Khalilzad's optimism."

Republican Sen. Todd Young of Indiana called for more transparency from the White House as talks with the Taliban move forward.

"We also need to begin considering some of these matters on the floor of the United States Senate," he said. "We can't just delegate these matters to the executive branch anymore."

The conflict in Afghanistan has cost more than 2,300 American lives and hundreds of billions in taxpayer dollars. As the war approaches its 18th year, 14,000 U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan, and senior intelligence officials have repeatedly warned that the country remains fragile and could once again become a terrorist haven.

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