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Afghan Unrest, Taliban Attacks Leave Lawmakers Pessimistic

Afghan Taliban militants walk as they took to the street to celebrate ceasefire

House Foreign Affairs Committee lawmakers expressed pessimism Wednesday over an increasingly fragmented Afghan government's ability to combat Taliban fighters.

Committee chairman Ed Royce (R., Calif.) asked Alice Wells, the acting assistant secretary of state for south and central Asian affairs, if the Taliban were at all interested in a political settlement with Afghanistan, while ranking member Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.) sought an answer for the mixed signals from the White House on U.S. negotiations with the Taliban.

"If we can talk to Kim Jong Un, certainly we can talk to the Taliban," Engel said.

Wells, who testified in front of the committee, said "the offer is on the table" for the Taliban to negotiate in peace talks with the United States and Afghanistan. Wells said, however, the Taliban is only willing to engage in negotiations with the United States, not the Afghans.

"The Taliban leadership has to understand that the very nature of a peace settlement—these are sovereign issues—they have to be negotiated with Afghans and not over the heads of Afghans," Wells said.

The shared frustration in the committee room came just hours after news broke that Taliban militants killed 30 Afghan soldiers and captured a military base in western Afghanistan. The attack happened only three days after a joint ceasefire was held between the Afghan government and Taliban fighters to commemorate the Eid al-Fitr holiday. Pictures of Taliban fighters taking selfies with Afghan soldiers went viral on the internet, leading some to believe the temporary truce could be the beginning of a lasting peace for the war-torn country.

But the Taliban ended the brief ceasefire on Sunday, even as Afghan president Ashraf Ghani extended his country's unilateral agreement for a continued truce for 10 days. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo backed the ceasefire, saying it "further demonstrates the Afghan government's commitment to explore ways to end the conflict."

Ghani has faced severe criticism for the ceasefire, which some view as an opportunity for Taliban fighters to freely enter government-held areas and plan further attacks.

"There's always concerns that a hostile power will use the prospects of peace as a cover to exhilarate their violence," Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.) said.

But the concern of increased ethnic polarization in Afghanistan also permeated the discussion at the hearing. Rep. Ted Yoho (R., Fla.) asked Wells if the Afghan people were "so ingrained in a tribal government that they couldn't even see the possibility" of a democratic process.

The current Afghan constitution is closely aligned with Washington's desires of a strong presidential system, which leaves many ethnic groups feeling excluded from the decision-making process. With millions of Afghans set to hit the polls this fall for their next parliamentary election, Wells said it's crucial for all ethnic groups to come together to vote for the most peaceful solution. The administration has indicated it will be the most hands-off the United States has been in an Afghan election since coming to the country in 2001.

"Our strong desire is that Afghans will use their upcoming elections as an opportunity to not only engage in a national dialogue on these and related issues, but also to coalesce around a peace vision that will further reinforce to the Taliban the stark choice they face," Wells said.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in October, while the next presidential vote is set for 2019.