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Menendez Opening Remarks at Classified Hearing on Afghanistan Peace Talks

WASHINGTON – Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the following remarks at the start of a classified hearing this morning titled, “The Reconciliation Process in Afghanistan,” which featured testimony by the Trump Administration’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad:

“Mr. Chairman, thank you for calling this important hearing on the peace process in Afghanistan.

Let me be clear at the outset. I want our troops home as soon as possible.  The war has gone on a very long time at great sacrifice by U.S. service members, our diplomats, and aid workers.  But how we draw down from the country is critically important.  If not done right without a durable peace deal, the country will undoubtedly descend into chaos.  A chaos reminiscent of the civil war in the 1990’s that led to the elevation of the Taliban.

I welcomed Ambassador Khalilzad’s appointment to the post, and am supportive of efforts to achieve a settlement.

I would like to highlight what I expect to see from these negotiations and some concerns about the process to date.

First, the peace process must protect constitutional human rights for all of Afghanistan’s population, including, critically, women and minorities.  We know that societies that oppress and treat women as less than equal under the law tend to be more unstable, less respectful of the rule of law more broadly and the democratic norms that promote global stability.

Secretary Pompeo alarmingly stated in an SFRC hearing last month that he ‘hoped’ that ‘the women of Afghanistan will demand of their leadership’ a seat at the negotiating table.

As if that’s all it takes.

As if the women of Afghanistan hadn’t thought of that before.

As if we were not a factor that could effectuate a better outcome.

Senator Shaheen, who raised the issue, is exactly right in clearly calling for U.S. leadership in support of Afghan women in the peace process.  We are not bystanders here, Mr. Ambassador.  The United States needs to be present and play a role in defending these rights.

Second, the peace process must incorporate the views of different ethnicities and political factions across the country.  The U.S. must insist on an intra-Afghan dialogue and actively participate in helping to shape the terms of those negotiations.  After being such an enormous factor in the course of Afghanistan over the past 18 years, it is not fair, nor realistic to expect Afghan political leaders to settle these differences without us at the intra-Afghan table and without the leverage afforded by U.S. troops.

Third, Europe needs to be at the table.  So many European countries have served, sacrificed and died in Afghanistan.  We cannot exclude Europe from actively participating in the negotiating process and then expect it to fund post-reconciliation development efforts.

Over the course of your tenure, some curious reports have emerged with respect to the process that I hope you can address.

First, you have claimed progress in securing counter terrorism guarantees.  This is perhaps the most critical component of a very complex peace deal.  Count me, though, as very skeptical that the Taliban is committed to opposing terrorist groups. It sees ISIS as a competitor and will fiercely counter its presence in the country.  But ISIS is not the only active group there – what about Al Qaeda?  What about Lashkar-i-Taiba?  The Haqqani Network is part of the Taliban, but will we no longer see it as a terrorist group? And even if the Taliban had the political will to deny safe haven to these groups, is it capable?  I am doubtful.

In connection with apparent Taliban counterterrorism commitments, you have reportedly agreed to framework on the withdrawal of U.S. troops, without progress on a ceasefire or on an intra-Afghan dialogue process.  Are the Taliban honestly incentivized to negotiate on a ceasefire and intra-Afghan dialogue after having made so much progress on their main goal of U.S. withdrawal?  Won’t they just wait us out?

Second, I want to know about the directions given to you by the White House.  Many suspect that President Trump is pushing for an accelerated peace deal in order to tout a withdrawal of troops on the campaign trail next year.  What deadlines have White House or the State Department set for you?

Third, the State Department seeks to decrease the embassy civilian presence and assistance by 50%.  If I’m the Taliban, it looks like the U.S. is planning a significant drawdown in presence no matter what.  You know better than anyone that negotiations are all about signaling.  And this is a strange signal to be sending at this time.

Ambassador, I want you to be successful.  Your success is our country’s success and I realize that this is a very complicated and difficult task.  But I am very concerned that you are not being given the necessary time by the President to achieve a sustainable peace.  And given that time crunch, these reports on the process itself are concerning.  I hope that you can assuage those concerns this morning.”