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Blinken reportedly offers sweeping plan to bolster Afghan peace

The secretary of state reportedly outlined proposed steps in a letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani published Sunday by TOLONews in that country.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks about the priorities for President Joe Biden's administration at the State Department on Wednesday.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

WASHINGTON —The Biden administration has reportedly launched a major diplomatic effort to try to end the decadeslong war in Afghanistan by accelerating the peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban militant group.

The Afghan network TOLONews published a letter it says was sent by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani outlining America’s plan aimed to bring four decades of war in Afghanistan to an end.

In the reported correspondence, Blinken implies a power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government may be one way out of the conflict, an idea that has run into opposition in Kabul in the past.

Blinken also says the United States intends to ask the United Nations to convene foreign ministers and special envoys from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and the U.S. to discuss a “unified approach” to supporting peace in Afghanistan, according to the letter.

NBC News has not independently verified the authenticity of the letter, which comes less than two months before the last American troops are due to leave the country under an agreement that former President Donald Trump's administration struck with Taliban militants.

Image: Secretary of State Antony Blinken
Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks about priorities for administration of U.S. President Joe Biden in the Ben Franklin room at the State Department, on March 3. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / Reuters

A spokesperson for the Department of State said it does not comment on alleged correspondence with foreign leaders, but added that “all options remain on the table,” and that no decision has been made on U.S. force levels in Afghanistan after May 1.

President Joe Biden has inherited the agreement that commits the U.S. to withdraw troops by the end of April. The Biden administration has said it’s reviewing the deal and whether the Taliban has fulfilled its pledges.

The stakes are high. Withdrawing would end nearly 20 years of war for America in Afghanistan, its longest in history, but risks emboldening the Taliban whose raison d’etre for decades has been to force foreign soldiers from the country.

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According to the letter reported by TOLO, Blinken has called on U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to share with the Afghan government and the Taliban written proposals to help accelerate talks on a negotiated settlement and a cease-fire.

He also reportedly proposes asking Turkey to host a senior-level meeting of both sides in the coming weeks to finalize a peace agreement.

America’s reported plan to enlist major powers — and Afghanistan’s neighbors — to try to secure a political settlement resembles the international approach taken at the Bonn conference after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. This time, however, the Taliban would be invited into the process, according to the letter.

The State Department declined to say whether any of the proposed countries had agreed to participate in the U.N. process or if Turkey had agreed to host the meeting between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price last Wednesday acknowledged that the administration was “considering a number of different ideas that might accelerate the process forward.”

Khalilzad, a holdover from the Trump administration, spent three days in Kabul last week where he said he discussed “various options/alternatives to propel the process forward,” before traveling on to Doha, where the Taliban has a political office.

The Afghan presidential office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Image: An Afghan policeman
A policeman keeps watch as he stands outside an outpost set up against Taliban fighters in Kandahar province in September 2020. Wakil Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images file

The success of the reported initiative is by no means guaranteed.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told NBC News on Monday that the militant group would not support any other path to resolving the Afghan conflict other than that outlined in the Doha accord, the agreement it reached with Washington in February 2020 under the Trump administration.

Taliban leaders have suggested there will be violence if the U.S. doesn’t withdraw on time, while a bipartisan U.S. report released last month warned that a hasty drawdown would likely lead to a “new civil war” and would allow terror groups to re-emerge empowered.

Image: Members of the Taliban
Members of the Taliban delegation attend the opening session of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha in September 2020. Karim Jafaar / AFP via Getty Images file

U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan in 2001, toppling the Taliban government that had sheltered Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, the architect of the 9/11 attacks. Around 2,300 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan since 2001 and there are currently about 2,500 American troops left in the war-torn country.

The letter says the U.S. has not ruled out any option, including a full troop withdrawal by May 1.

CORRECTION (March 8, 2021, 1:40 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the president of Afghanistan. It is Ashraf Ghani, not Ashra Ghani.

Abigail Williams and Dan De Luce reported from Washington, Saphora Smith from the United Kingdom, and Mushtaq Yusufzai from Pakistan.