Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad Opening Statement for Afghanistan Briefing – As Delivered

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member, and distinguished members of the Committee.  I welcome the opportunity to talk to you today about America’s strategy in Afghanistan and to update you on my recent discussions with partners in Kabul, the Taliban in Doha, and regional and international stakeholders.  As you know, President Biden made the decision to withdraw the remaining U.S. forces from Afghanistan beginning on May 1 and concluding by September 11.  The President reached this decision after an extensive review of the United States’ mission in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, the facts on the ground, including with regards to terrorism, the options available to us, and other security challenges around the globe.  The world has changed since 2001.

The President determined that it was not in our national interest to maintain U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Looking ahead, our objectives in Afghanistan are:

  1. To safely and responsibly withdraw our remaining forces and to put Afghan forces in the best position possible to defend against Taliban attacks.
  2. To promote a political settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan. The Afghans have now been in conflict for over 40   Their best prospect is a negotiated settlement within the country itself, ideally one that protects the rights of all Afghans including women, children and minorities, and is supported by the regional powers.
  3. To prevent Afghanistan from becoming a platform for terrorists threatening the United States or our allies.  This requires establishing monitoring and response capabilities and adjusting our posture in the region, which is on-going.
  4. Promote regional cooperation including connectivity, trade, and economic development to help shift the country to a peacetime mindset and to give the region a stake in its success.

The key elements of our strategy to achieve these objectives are:

  1. Build International support for a political settlement through negotiations.
  2. Encourage political unity among Afghan leaders.
  3. Sustain military, political, and economic support for the Afghan Republic.
  4. Incentivize the Taliban to reduce violence, accelerate negotiations for a political settlement, and agree to a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire.
  5. And strengthen regional cooperation to against terror and enhance economic cooperation.

I have recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, Qatar, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Germany as part of our intensive diplomacy in support of the peace process.

In Kabul, there is uncertainty and apprehension, unsurprisingly.  After two decades, reliance on the U.S. and other countries and international agencies for services, support, staffing, and funding has become deeply ingrained.  This was not sustainable, but the transition to self-reliance is unnerving for many.  Our message has been that we and our allies will assist and accompany them through this process, but that they in turn must step up to the plate as responsible and selfless national leaders focused on unity, pragmatism, and reconciliation.

In Doha, the Taliban negotiating team were focused on their prior and long-standing requests for releases of prisoners held by the Afghan government and on sanctions delisting.  As was my mandate, I made clear that we would be open to supporting such action in return for a significant reduction in violence on the battlefield and a visible commitment to an earnest peace process.  In my engagements with Russian, Chinese, Pakistani, and European counterparts, I found a strong consensus in support of accelerated negotiations and opposition to the establishment of any new government in Afghanistan imposed by force.

I have told the Taliban they have a choice between two very different futures:  They can embrace a negotiated path to peace, make the transition from a violent insurgency to a political movement, and join their fellow Afghans in a nation that enjoys respect in the global community.  But if they instead pursue a military takeover, they will face isolation, regional opposition, sanctions, and international opprobrium – and our and our allies’ support for Afghan security forces will continue.

We are working closely with United Nations to enhance its role in the peace process and leverage its expertise, including on ceasefires, process design, and constitutional reform.  The

UN’s role will be central to the Afghan peace process going forward.  We are grateful to the UN, Turkey, and Qatar’s willingness to host a high-level dialogue in Istanbul.  The parties need to agree to a date soon and we expect them to be prepared with concrete proposals.  The opportunities are in place, the international will to assist is robust, and the Afghan government leaders and the Taliban need to do their part.

Pakistan has an important role to play.  Senior U.S. officials and I remain in close touch with Pakistan’s leaders, pressing them to exercise their considerable leverage over the Taliban to reduce violence and support a negotiated settlement.  I believe Pakistan understands that a civil war in Afghanistan is not in its interest and a rogue state next door is not to its benefit.

As you know, we have already begun the process of withdrawing our troops, in close coordination with our NATO Allies and partners.  The withdrawal so far has taken place safely.  We have made it clear to the Taliban that if they attack us as we draw down, we will defend ourselves forcefully.

We are reconfiguring our counterterrorism capabilities to ensure our ability to monitor and address terrorism threats emanating from Afghanistan.  We will maintain sufficient assets

in the region and will continue to work closely with Afghan counterparts.  We are exploring opportunities for enhanced cooperation with regional partners, who share our concerns and are open to this.  We will hold the Taliban accountable to their commitments to prevent al Qaeda and ISIS or any terrorist group from using Afghanistan as a base for attacks against us.

Even as we withdraw our military forces, we are continuing our diplomatic support for the peace process and our regional and international partners – all who have a stake in a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan.  We recently had productive meetings with Russia, China, and Pakistan, and separately with our European allies, and released powerful joint statements calling on the two sides to reduce violence and engage seriously in negotiations and on the Taliban not to pursue a spring offensive.  All of our partners have made clear their unequivocal opposition to the establishment of any Afghan government by force.

With the support of Congress, we can maintain substantial security assistance through the Afghan Security Forces Fund.  This primarily supports sustainment of combat operations and related functions by 300,000 Afghan military and police personnel.  Our NATO Allies and partners are positioned to continue their assistance to Afghan security forces uninterrupted.

We have heard justifiable concerns regarding the safety of the thousands of Afghans who have worked with our diplomats and soldiers over the past twenty years.  As Secretary Blinken has made clear, we are working hard to ensure that we have expedited consideration for those at risk.  At the same time, we must not assume the inevitability of a worse-case outcome in Afghanistan.  Ideally, Afghans who have acquired education, skills, and international experience will form the backbone of a new economy and prosperity for a peaceful Afghanistan.  Measures to ensure that their value is recognized and that no retaliatory acts are undertaken will be an integral and essential part of the peace talks and of our own discussions with the Taliban.

Through our Embassy in Kabul, we will continue to provide development assistance, promote economic investment, and advocate to preserve the gains for minorities and for women, including their meaningful participation in the ongoing negotiations and their appropriate representation throughout society.  This is important to me personally.  It is something I worked hard on during my time as ambassador and the significant steps that have been achieved must not be lost.

Ultimately, the future of Afghanistan can only be determined by the Afghans themselves.  Their politicians and leaders must put the interests of the country and its people before their own personal power and profit and must focus on crafting a way forward instead of jockeying for power, benefit, and influence.

Please know that the release of Mark Frerichs, who has been held as a hostage since 2020, is very important to the Secretary and to me.  In my meetings with the Taliban, I have repeatedly demanded his release.  I have also enlisted the support of senior Qatari officials and have pressed Pakistani officials on his behalf.

I also want to take a moment to acknowledge the tremendous loss following the recent attack on a girls’ school near Kabul.  This was a heinous and deeply shocking incident.  It is most likely that ISIS was responsible, but ultimately, it was a product of the ongoing violence and chaos that allows such attacks to take.

Thank you for this opportunity to update you.  It bears repeating and I think is important to remember that what our country did for Afghanistan over the past two decades has been extraordinary and motivated by goodwill and honorable goals.  Our men and women in uniform have sacrificed their lives, and thousands now live with permanent physical and other disabilities as a result of their service.  We have invested massively in the effort to develop a society far from our own, not just because terrorists planned 9/11 there, but also because we cared about the plight of millions of women and girls, about a fledgling civil society that has grown into a viable entity, and about replacing extremism with peace.  We want our investments and sacrifices to have been worthwhile, and if we navigate the coming months appropriately, I believe this can happen.  In the end it is up to the Afghans to seize their opportunities.  Our troops deserve to come home, and Afghanistan deserves a chance to find its way forward, with help and encouragement from its friends.

Thank you again, and I look forward to your questions.