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Engel Remarks at Trump Administration’s Afghanistan Policy Hearing

– As Delivered –

Washington— Representative Eliot L. Engel, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today delivered the following remarks at a full committee hearing on the Trump Administration’s Afghanistan policy: 

“For months, we’ve been attempting to get some visibility into the ongoing peace negotiations without success. We all want peace. We all want the fighting in Afghanistan to end. But Congress needs to know what a potential deal looks like. Members on both sides need the chance to ask questions and offer views.

“And in the last few weeks, we’ve seen the Afghan reconciliation process go off the rails in a spectacular fashion. We learned from a Presidential tweet that the Administration was planning to host the Taliban at Camp David the same week that we marked the anniversary of 9/11…we learned that the President upended that arrangement…and we learned that the peace deal, evidently, is dead.

“If reporting is accurate, the President’s desire to get the credit and look like a dealmaker got the better of him…again and now months and months of diplomatic efforts seems to be thrown out the window.

“As the Committee that oversees American foreign policy, we understandably had a lot of questions about this diplomatic effort. And the Administration’s refusal to provide us—and the American people—answers prompted me a week ago to subpoena our top negotiator, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to testify today. Just to be clear: I do not take subpoenas lightly. I would not have issued this one had we not sent three letters inviting him and asking Secretary Pompeo at a hearing to send him. We simply couldn’t wait any longer.

“After I issued that subpoena, I spoke with Secretary Pompeo at the State Department’s request. He offered to send an official from the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs to testify, and for Ambassador Khalilzad to brief myself and Mr. McCaul in a classified setting.

“I said I would consider an accommodation, but only if the ambassador briefed every member of this Committee—Democrats and Republicans—in a classified setting—the same courtesy that was afforded the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Anything less than that was a nonstarter for me and for Mr. McCaul. I’ll let him speak for himself, but we were eye to eye. We saw this just the same way. We were defending the integrity of the legislative process and the integrity of our committee.

“Last evening, after a few days of negotiation, the State Department finally agreed to this compromise and I withdrew the subpoena on Ambassador Khalilzad. We just wrapped up that classified briefing, and we’re going now to continue our examination of these issues now with the officials before us.

“So let’s take a step back: I know that the idea of negotiating with the Taliban may seem abhorrent. I’m from New York City, and for myself and a lot of New Yorkers who lived through 9/11, it’s a tough pill to swallow. And since then, many brave Americans have lost their lives at the hands of Taliban fighters. 

“But here’s the reality after 18 years of war: the Taliban still exists. We need, unfortunately, to deal with that fact. And the adage remains true: you don’t make peace with your friends. And believe it or not, there’s some common ground: for starters, the Taliban want our troops out of Afghanistan, and we want our troops home.

“So where do we go from there? In my view, any viable deal needs to be built on three pillars. 

“The first is that the Taliban must pledge that Afghanistan will never be used again as a base to plan attacks against the United States and our allies. We understand that the Administration secured that commitment from the Taliban in earlier negotiations.

“Second, the Taliban must agree to separate from al-Qaeda—something they’ve indicated they would do—and renounce violence, including against the Afghan people or government.

“Lastly, the Taliban and the Afghan government must engage in a good faith process that can lead to reconciliation among all Afghans. This area still has a lot of unanswered questions, and with the President declaring the deal “dead,” it’s not clear where we go from here.

“The way I see it, we need to use whatever leverage we can to promote intra-Afghan dialogue. The President suggested that peace would not be possible unless we first had a ceasefire in place.

“Well guess what? There was a ceasefire. In June 2018 to celebrate Eid. And what did we do to seize on this opportunity? Nothing. Why? Because the Administration has hollowed out the State Department. We’ve complained about this for a long time. The State Department Inspector General found that the bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs has “lost both staff and expertise” under this Administration, including experts on peace talks with the Taliban and reconciliation.

“So what will this Administration do to get a second bite at the apple—another ceasefire that might create an opening for more dialogue? I’d like to hear from our witnesses about that, among many other issues.

“Because one thing is crystal clear: there is no military solution to end the fighting in Afghanistan. And if there is another opportunity, even following the President’s disastrous attempts at deal-making, to forge a peace that advances American security interests, we need to consider those options.

“We owe this to the women and men who have fought and died in this war. We owe it to those who lost their lives or their loved ones in 9/11. We owe it to future generations of Americans who don’t want to see our country entrenched in endless war and to the Afghan people who want a peaceful and prosperous future for their country.

“We’ll soon hear from our witnesses. But first I’ll yield to our Ranking Member, Mr. McCaul of Texas, for any opening remarks he might have. And I want to thank him publicly for his cooperation as usual. We work together and we believe it brings good results not only for the Congress but for the American people as well.”

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