'Afghan peace deal before July 20 elections better'

It would be better for Afghanistan to have a peace agreement before the presidential elections scheduled for July 20, according to the top U.S. envoy for Afghanistan.

"The timing of the peace settlement from our point of view is the sooner, the better," Zalmay Khalilzad told an audience at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington late Friday.

Khalilzad said the U.S. would prefer a peace agreement before July "to bring the Taliban also into the process so that peace agreement would facilitate a peaceful election or a peaceful framework for proceedings with regard to the future of Afghanistan."

If there is no progress towards peace, he added, "the elections will take place, and we are doing what we can to support the preparations for a credible election."

Khalilzad stressed how "regional integration" would transform the region, particularly Central Asia.

Apologizing for his scratchy voice, Khalilzad joked: "This is what 42 hours of talking with the Taliban can do to you."

The Taliban and a number of Afghan officials, excluding the Kabul government, held a two-day conference in Moscow earlier this week.

Khalilzad said the Afghanistan of today is very different than the Afghanistan of 19 years ago.

"It's a different country. It will take time for the Taliban to appreciate that, but the message they have given to me is that they understand that they cannot go back."

Khalilzad said U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan could only be sought after a peace agreement is reached.

"A peace agreement can allow withdrawal. But it is not just a withdrawal agreement that we are seeking. To achieve a peace agreement, quite a number of issues have to be dealt with," Khalilzad said, stressing two top issues during talks with the Taliban: counterterrorism and a U.S. withdrawal.

Khalilzad said an agreement was reached in principle with the Taliban "that no terrorist group, international terrorist group, or individuals would be able to use Afghanistan and the areas they control."

He added that "a possible U.S. withdrawal as part of our package deal" was agreed to in principle but that an immediate peace agreement would not be achieved without a comprehensive agreement on other issues.

"The other issues that must be dealt with are issues of a roadmap for Afghanistan to end the Afghan war. The Afghans must sit across the table with each other and come to an agreement about the future of their country," he said.

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