WASHINGTON — Amid talk of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the U.S. envoy talking to the Taliban said Thursday that America is not "cutting and running" from its longest war and that women will continue to have seats in peace talks to end nearly 18 years of fighting.
Zalmay Khalilzad addressed an audience in Washington on a video link from Qatar where a two-day all-Afghan conference concluded Tuesday with a statement that offered a roadmap for the country's future. The Washington event was heavily focused on raising the voices of women who fear any peace accord with the Taliban will rollback gains they've made and return them to the days of repressive Taliban rule,
"We would like to leave a very positive legacy here," said the U.S. envoy, who was born in Afghanistan. "We are not cutting and running. We're not looking for a withdrawal agreement. We're looking for a peace agreement. And we're looking for a long-term relationship and partnership with Afghanistan."
The Taliban refuses to meet with the current Afghan government, but there are ongoing discussions about peace.
Khalilzad has held eight rounds of U.S. talks with the Taliban and there have been all-Afghan meetings, including the last one in Doha, the capital of Qatar, where Afghans from all walks of life met to discuss grievances and find common ground about the future for their nation.
A statement released at the end of the conference said that a post-war Afghanistan would have an Islamic legal system, protect women's rights "within the Islamic framework of Islamic values," and ensure equality for all ethnic groups.
Alice Wells, acting assistant secretary of state for Central and South Asian Affairs, who attended the event at Georgetown University, said no current or future Afghan government should count on international donor support if it "restricts, represses or relegates Afghan women to second-class status."
In his talks with the Taliban, Khalilzad said there has been progress on four fronts: getting assurances from the Taliban that Afghanistan will not become a staging ground again for militant groups like al-Qaida or the Islamic State; the withdrawal of U.S. troops, which currently number 14,000; having an all-Afghan dialogue to reach agreement on a peaceful future; and a permanent ceasefire to end the fighting.
He wants the U.S. talks with the Taliban to reach fruition by Sept. 1, which would allow the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops. That would open the door to more difficult negotiations.
That's where the many sides of Afghanistan's protracted conflict would sit down to hammer out the details of what an Islamic system will look like, what constitutional reforms would be made and what would become of the many local militias affiliated with the country's powerful warlords. Those talks also would have to tackle how women's rights fit into the definition of the "Islamic values."
Roya Rahmani, Afghanistan's first female ambassador to the United States, expressed hope for peace, but said there's still no dialogue between the Taliban and the current Afghan government. She predicted tough periods of negotiation ahead and said whatever deal is made needed to be implemented by a "strong central government."
The talks have created both optimism and anxiety, especially among women.
Ghizaal Haress, assistant professor of law at the American University of Afghanistan who spoke via Skype from Kabul, said the Taliban must guarantee that the rights of women and minorities, which currently are protected in the Afghan constitution, are preserved.
"If we leave it to broad interpretation or to the broad idea of women's 'Islamic values' then we're going to be in trouble as we have experienced it" under Taliban rule in the past, she said.
Asila Wardack, a member of the Afghan peace council who attended the conference in Doha, said it appears the Taliban are embracing more modern views of women. Via Skype from Kabul, she said she still worries that they have not changed their hardline ideology and claimed a deeper trust between the parties was needed for the negotiations to be successful.
Doha was the first time Wardack had met the Taliban negotiating team.
"They approached us. They didn't shake hands," she said.
Later, Wardack said two of the Taliban representatives walked up to the women at the conference and said they had heard that a group of "dangerous women" were going to be at the meeting.
"They literally used the word 'dangerous women,'" Wardack said. She said one Taliban member then said: "Please don't give us a hard time."