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Lawmakers Briefed On U.S. Negotiations With The Taliban


How do you end America's longest war? That's a task the Trump administration has set for itself in Afghanistan. This week, the administration told Congress about peace talks. And NPR's Michele Kelemen has been asking what they heard.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: After a more than hour-long classified briefing with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, James Risch, emerged sounding confident that the administration has the right man on the job. But it's a tough assignment.

JAMES RISCH: Everybody in America wants to get the troops home from there and get the situation resolved. We've been there 18 years now, and I don't think there's any question that people want to get there. But to do that, there's got to be a give and take on both sides. And that's what we're exploring.

KELEMEN: Khalilzad didn't talk to reporters after his closed-door briefing yesterday, but State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus described his diplomacy this way.

MORGAN ORTAGUS: He's making slow and steady progress on these talks. He - I know he completed another round recently. And while he has an incredibly tough job, I think that he is doing something that is important to the president, to the secretary and to the American people.

KELEMEN: Afghan officials say they have little insight into Khalilzad's talks with the Taliban in Doha. Here's Afghan Ambassador Roya Rahmani speaking to reporters at the embassy last week.

ROYA RAHMANI: For a peace settlement to be held, it has to include the Afghan people and their elected government.

KELEMEN: The longer this goes on, the more she worries.

RAHMANI: It has been already six rounds. We know that Ambassador Khalilzad is trying hard and trying to convince the Taliban to come and hold the talks with the Afghan government. But this is time.

KELEMEN: Senator Chris Murphy says he understands why the Afghans are nervous, but he doesn't see any other way to do this.

CHRIS MURPHY: We're not at the point where we can sit down with everybody around a table.

KELEMEN: And the U.S., he says, has to think about its interests, whether it's just making sure Afghanistan doesn't again become a safe haven for terrorists or something more ambitious.

MURPHY: We may have to make some hard decisions as to whether we want to stick around until there's peace between the Taliban and the Afghan government. That's a high bar, and that could be an invitation for another 20, you know, to 50 years of troops. And I think - you know, my sense is that members in that room are struggling with what the ambassador's mission should be.

KELEMEN: Senate Foreign Relations Committee members were also briefed this week by U.S. intelligence officials, who were said to be far more skeptical than Khalilzad about winning the peace in Afghanistan. The ranking Democrat, Bob Menendez, put it this way.

BOB MENENDEZ: What we need from the Taliban in order to be able to move forward and become convinced that the national security of the United States is preserved is still deeply in question. And there is a deep conflict between the intelligence community's views on this question and Ambassador Khalilzad's optimism.

KELEMEN: Republican Todd Young says there needs to be a more open debate and more focus on Afghanistan, adding, quote, "we can't just delegate these matters to the executive branch."

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.