Top U.S. officials stress Taliban peace talks as part of Trump policy

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Top U.S. diplomatic and military officials sought Thursday to address days of confusion and concern over President Donald Trump’s strategy for Afghanistan, stressing support for possible peace talks with Taliban insurgents alongside a new, open-ended military commitment.

Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and the acting U.S. ambassador, Hugo Llorens, spoke about the importance of reaching a settlement with the Taliban in attempts to end the nearly 16-year war.

Afghans see a peace pact as crucial to future stability, but Trump’s address on Monday seemed to dismiss an accord as a vague possibility. Both U.S. officials insisted they were not breaking ranks with the White House, but framed their comments as additional details and reinforcement of Trump’s message.

“We are determined to pursue the goal of a political settlement. As these terrorist groups realize that they cannot win, they will see that their best option is to pursue peace,” Nicholson said.

He invited the Taliban to “stop bringing hardship and misery to the Afghan people. Lay down your arms and join Afghan society. Help build a better future for this country and your own children.”

Although Afghan officials immediately embraced Trump’s message, many Afghan analysts and commentators expressed concern this week that it would be focused too narrowly on fighting the Taliban and terrorist groups. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai called it a formula based on “killing, killing, killing.”

Many Afghans also expressed worries about Trump’s declaration that the U.S. government would no longer pursue “nation-building” in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The United States has invested billions of dollars in aid, advisers and projects to help build Afghanistan’s democracy and economy since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.

Nicholson and Llorens – following similar reassurances made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington after Trump’s speech – emphasized that the new policy would be much more than a battle plan. Llorens said it would “integrate all the instruments of American power,” including diplomacy and economic support.

Llorens described a newly launched “compact” between Washington and the Afghan National Unity government, which he said “codifies” a number of areas in which the two governments have agreed to cooperate, such as fighting corruption and promoting investment.

Nicholson, however, repeatedly returned to the theme of America’s staunch military commitment to the war effort, vowing to pursue and “annihilate” Islamic State forces in Afghanistan and to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists, who “wish to attack the rest of the world from Afghan soil.”

Like Trump, he declined to say how many additional U.S. troops would be sent. But he sought to counter critic that the new military strategy would follow that same path as others that have failed to make significant headway in the conflict, even with more than 100,000 international troops in Afghanistan at one time.

One difference he cited was cooperation from the current Afghan government, which he called “a trusted and willing partner” that seeks to reform and professionalize the security forces. He also repeatedly praised the Afghan special operations forces, which are going to be doubled in size and trained by U.S. and NATO advisers.

“These brave soldiers have never lost a battle, and they never will,” Nicholson said. “With the additional support we will provide them, they will become larger and more lethal.”

Another change he mentioned was the shift from an American strategy of support based on “arbitrary timelines” to one “guided by conditions on the ground.”

Trump did not specify those conditions, and many Afghans have asked this week what they would involve. Comments by Tillerson, followed by Lloren and Nicholson, suggested that progress on fighting corruption and holding elections could be key.

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