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As The Taliban Move Through Afghanistan, U.S. Envoy Scrambles To Salvage Peace Talks

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The U.S. envoy for Afghanistan is scrambling to salvage a peace process as the Taliban takes over more towns and cities across the country. The Biden administration says it's staying on course to pull out all U.S. troops by September. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is back in Doha to press the Taliban to stop their military offensive and negotiate a political settlement. Longtime Afghan watcher Marvin Weinbaum calls it a fool's errand.

MARVIN WEINBAUM: He has invested years in convincing us, the international community and, he hoped, the Taliban that we could reach some accommodation, that a negotiated power-sharing arrangement would be possible. Honestly, he's failed in this.

KELEMEN: Khalilzad's latest diplomatic trip comes as the U.N. reports rising civilian casualties in cities taken over by the Taliban. Weinbaum, of the Middle East Institute, predicts many Afghans will flee rather than living under the Taliban, who he says were never interested in sharing power with the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

WEINBAUM: They know what they want. They are true believers in restoring an Islamic emirate. They'll negotiate with you, and they'll take whatever concessions you want to give them, but at the same time, they give nothing in return.

KELEMEN: Still, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki says the Biden administration believes the only way out is a negotiated settlement. And she says a Taliban takeover is not inevitable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEN PSAKI: Our view is that the Afghan National Security Defense Forces has the equipment, numbers and training to fight back, which will strengthen their position at the negotiating table.

KELEMEN: Administration officials also argue that the Taliban understand they won't get international legitimacy or aid if they take the country by force. Laurel Miller of the International Crisis Group doubts that approach.

LAUREL MILLER: The U.S. is leaning very heavily on the carrot of legitimacy and the stick of withdrawn aid as their leverage over the Taliban. They're leaning heavily on that because that's the leverage they perceive they have, not because there's any reason to think that's going to be tremendously effective leverage.

KELEMEN: Miller says while the U.S. has little leverage, it could do more to respond to the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

MILLER: There was already a pretty dire humanitarian situation before this latest upsurge in the fighting with drought and COVID and increased violence. And it's only gotten worse.

KELEMEN: At the State Department today, spokesman Ned Price expressed grave concern, but he says he believes there is room for diplomatic progress.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY BRUNETTE AND BRIESKE SONG, "CITY LIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.