U.S. envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has called on Afghan leaders to end their standoff over a disputed presidential election and seize a "historic opportunity” for peace.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan by telephone from Kabul on March 12, Khalilzad said the time had come for all Afghans, including the Western-backed Kabul government and the Taliban, to "join hands and learn from the terrible lessons" of decades of conflict.
Khalilzad’s remarks come days after President Ashraf Ghani and his main election rival, former Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, held dual and competing inauguration ceremonies on March 9.
Last month, Ghani was declared the winner of a bitterly disputed September 28 election, which was marred by voting irregularities, historic low turnout, and militant attacks. Abdullah called the result a "coup" and vowed to create a parallel government.
Last-minute shuttle diplomacy by Khalilzad failed to resolve the dispute and prevent the parallel inaugurations.
Khalilzad told RFE/RL that he was hopeful of an agreement "that is accepted by both sides."
"It’s a very bad thing that two governments or two presidents exist in Afghanistan," he said. "This poses a great danger, not only to the peace process, but to the future of Afghanistan."
Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said U.S. officials were "very active" in trying to mediate an agreement between Ghani and Abdullah on the "creation of a cabinet that is broadly accepted in Afghanistan" and which includes Abdullah and his allies.
The election dispute was one of the key issues that prevented the start of intra-Afghan negotiations on March 10.
Observers have warned that the dispute could descend into violence and derail a historic deal between the United States and Taliban militants aimed at ending the nearly 19-year war.
As part of that agreement, direct peace talks between the Western-backed Kabul government and the Taliban were scheduled to begin on March 10. But the political crisis in Kabul has thrown those plans into disarray.
Khalilzad said Washington was trying to start the intra-Afghan talks "as soon as possible."
Those talks have also been delayed because of the Taliban's demand that Kabul release 5,000 of militant group's fighters before the start of negotiations. Ghani issued a decree on March 11 for the phased release of the prisoners, starting with 1,500, a proposal rejected by the militants.
Khalilzad said the government decree "opened the door for progress on that issue," hinting at a possible compromise.
The election dispute has further complicated the government's naming of a delegation to negotiate with the Taliban, a process already mired in delays and disputes.
But Khalilzad, who is currently in Kabul, said "positive steps have been taken towards establishing an inclusive team to negotiate with the Taliban."
"I’m hopeful that this will be finalized in the coming days," he said.
Khalilzad said intra-Afghan negotiations over a permanent cease-fire and a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban was key to ending the conflict.
"This war is killing more than 100 Afghans every week," he said. "Sometimes, 700, 800, or even 900 Afghans are killed every month. We want there to be peace in Afghanistan and for the world not to feel threatened by Afghanistan."
As part of its deal with the Taliban, the United States has agreed to reduce its troops from about 12,000 to 8,600 within 135 days.
The long-term plan is for the United States and its NATO allies to withdraw all troops within 14 months.
Khalilzad said the United States would only complete its full withdrawal if the Taliban held up its end of the bargain.
Under the deal, the Taliban have made various security commitments and promised to hold talks with the government in Kabul -- which it so far has refused to do.
"If the Taliban, for example, doesn't adhere to its commitments, then the United States will be freed from its own commitments," said Khalilzad.