WASHINGTON -- Another round of talks aimed at resolving nearly two decades of fighting in Afghanistan has ended without a deal, but the Trump administration is moving ahead regardless with plans to substantially cut the number of U.S. troops and diplomats in the conflicted country.
An overly hasty downsizing of U.S. military, diplomatic and aid personnel could risk sacrificing some of the progress made in human rights and development, some experts warn -- especially if no meaningful peace treaty is in place. At the same time, U.S. patience for America's longest conflict is at an end.
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad was headed back to Washington on Wednesday to "consult the next steps" after what he described as 10 days of "productive" talks with Taliban leaders in Qatar that focused on technical issues.
"I hope this is the last Eid where #Afghanistan is at war," he said in a Twitter message marking the Islamic holiday. "I know Afghans yearn for peace. We stand with them and are working hard toward a lasting & honorable peace agreement and a sovereign Afghanistan which poses no threat to any other country."
The deal that Khalilzad is attempting to negotiate with the Taliban would remove around half of an estimated 20,000 U.S. and other foreign troops from Afghanistan in exchange for guarantees that the country will not once again host radical Islamic militants.
Khalilzad suggested some progress had been made on those points. But it appears that virtually no advances were made on other U.S. demands, including that the Taliban also negotiate directly with Afghan government officials. The Taliban does not recognize the government in Kabul, saying it is a puppet of the West.
Another key sticking point is declaring a cease-fire. The U.S. is insisting on a halt of bloodshed, but the Taliban sees violence as a potent tool. It has continued detonating bombs and attacking security forces even as the talks dragged on. Taliban representatives are also warning Afghan citizens against voting in next month's presidential election, threatening to attack election sites.
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo had set that election as a potential deadline for reaching an agreement. More recently, he said he expected troop numbers to come down significantly by the 2020 U.S. presidential election -- and he made clear his boss insisted on it. President Donald Trump has repeatedly said he wanted the troops home.
"We hope that overall the need for combat forces in the region is reduced," Pompeo told an interviewer late last month, emphasizing Trump's preference for a drop. "It would be job-enhancing."
At the same time, the State Department has been paring down the size of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the largest diplomatic mission it has overseas. This is seen as both a declaration that the Trump administration is serious about leaving Afghanistan, and is part of a broader downgrading of U.S. diplomatic presence worldwide made as part of Trump-ordered budget cuts.