U.S. Trying To Get The Taliban And Afghan Government To Start Negotiations The Trump administration's top envoy on Afghanistan says he's making progress in talks with the Taliban while trying to reassure Afghans that the U.S. won't leave until there's a foundation for peace.

U.S. Trying To Get The Taliban And Afghan Government To Start Negotiations

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The Trump administration's envoy on Afghanistan says he's making progress in the talks to end America's longest war. But he's also trying to reassure Afghans the U.S. won't leave until there's a solid foundation for peace. The U.S. is trying to get the Taliban and the Afghan government to start negotiations, and this week saw an early test of that, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad has faced a lot of criticism from Afghans worried that he's been keeping them in the dark about his meetings with the Taliban. In a video message to a conference at Georgetown University, he again tried to allay those fears.


ZALMAY KHALILZAD: We are not cutting and running. We are not looking for a withdrawal agreement. We're looking for a peace agreement.

KELEMEN: That would include a U.S. troop withdrawal plus guarantees from the Taliban that Afghanistan won't become a safe haven for terrorists again. He's also urging the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government and agree to a cease-fire. Khalilzad says he is making substantial progress on all those points, and he's telling Afghanistan's women in particular their voices will be heard.


KHALILZAD: I want to make a commitment, and I have delivered already on it, that women will be at the table. They were present here for the conference, and we'll make sure they have a seat, or several seats, at the negotiating table.

KELEMEN: The conference he mentioned was in Doha, organized by Qatar and Germany. Ten Afghan women were among those invited to sit down with the Taliban. Asila Wardak Wardak was one of them. She's a foreign ministry official who had never met with the Taliban before. She told the audience in Georgetown by video hookup that the Taliban officials wouldn't shake her hand.


ASILA WARDAK: They didn't shake hands, but they warmly welcomed us to Qatar. And then two of them, they came to us and said that we noticed that a group of Afghan women, they are coming. And they used, literally, the word of dangerous women and, please, don't give us hard time.

KELEMEN: During tea breaks and meals, she said the women and other Afghan representatives would talk to the Taliban about how the country has changed. She described the Taliban representatives as skilled negotiators and politicians. The director of the Afghan Women's Network Mary Akrami remembers well how difficult life was under the Taliban.

MARY AKRAMI: It's really difficult to trust easily that the Taliban has changed. That really is a concern. But we have tried our best, as women, to raise voice of not only women of Afghanistan, to raise voice of all Afghan people.

KELEMEN: The informal dialogue in Qatar was just a start. A joint statement calls for, among other things, the protection of women's rights within a, quote, "Islamic framework." Women activists want the Taliban to commit to the country's constitution, which guarantees women's rights and religious freedoms. A top State Department official on the region, Alice Wells, says that's something Afghans need to work out.

ALICE WELLS: It's not for Americans to determine, you know, what Sharia means in Afghanistan. It's for Afghans to arrive at that solution. So what Ambassador Khalilzad is achieving is the commitment by the parties to agree to negotiate.

KELEMEN: Khalilzad has an ambitious timeline trying to reach the broad outlines of an agreement by September 1. That means the formal intra-Afghan negotiations need to begin soon. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

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