President Donald Trump in August laid out his South Asia policy vowing to keep American troops on Afghan soil so that a hasty recall does not create a void which may be filled by terror groups like the al-Qaeda and ISIS.
A variety of diplomatic initiatives continue to work very closely but fundamentally, there is a need to get the parties to talk to one another directly and that involves changing the Taliban's calculus, acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs and Acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Alice Wells told lawmakers.
"The president's strategy specifically does not attach a calendar to this commitment. It has to be conditions based. I am not able to answer you on how long this will take. We would like to get it (the Taliban) to the negotiating table as soon as possible," Wells told lawmakers during a Congressional hearing this week.
She was responding to Congressman Al Brooks who asked how long the US forces are going to stay in war-torn Afghanistan.
"This war began in 2001. Now it's ongoing for roughly 16 years; that is the longest active military conflict in the history the United States. Early on the Taliban government was toppled and al-Qaeda to a very large degree was destroyed and quite frankly goals were achieved. Our American military won. Later on, Osama bin Laden was killed as a result of our presence in Afghanistan. Another goal was achieved," she said.
The US has persisted in Afghanistan despite those victories and achievements and the cost in monetary terms is estimated to be as low as 800 billion to as high as four to six trillion dollars, Brooks said.
"Are you talking years... are you talking decades and at what cost?" he asked.
Wells said, "I am sorry I can't answer that question, but I would note as the president said in his speech that the reason he reverted was because he was convinced that the national threat to our own national security remained".
The US has about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan.
Congressman Brad Sherman wanted to know from Wells if Pakistani leaders knew about the presence of Osama bin Laden.
"I've never heard any Pakistani leader suggest that Pakistan knew where Osama bin Laden was located," Wells said.
Congressman Eliot Engel asked the US diplomat about the peace process and negotiated settlement with the Taliban.
The US remains very active in all of the regional architectures that have existed and supports a negotiated political solution, she said, adding that she recently hosted a quadrilateral meeting with the Chinese, the Afghans and the Pakistanis.
Wells said a victory in Afghanistan would not come on the battlefield.
"Victory is a sustainable political settlement that results in a stable Afghanistan whose territory is not used to threaten the United States and our partners," she said.
Referring to her recent visit to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India accompanying Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Wells said that she was there to see the impact of the strategy in each of those countries for Afghanistan.
"It is a recommitment to that country, the knowledge that we're prepared to stay with them as they have to undertake what are very difficult and necessary reforms. It's telling the Pakistanis that we're not leaving, it's not 1989 that you need to count on our presence and instead of hedging identify how to mediate the legitimate interests that you have in Afghanistan at a negotiating table."
"In India, it is recognising the role, positive role that India can play in Afghanistan's economic stabilisation. So I found across the region the strategy was extraordinarily resonant. I do believe that after four years of counting us out we've changed the dynamic and changed the conversation and we're going to see progress as a result," Wells said.
The key impediment to achieving a peaceful negotiated settlement is the unwillingness to engage the Taliban directly with the government of Afghanistan.
"We have to change that calculus of the Taliban using both military and political means," she said.
The Trump administration has not set preconditions to negotiations but "in conditions" that have been a cessation of violence, cessation of ties to terrorist networks and respect for the Constitution including the provisions for women and minorities and that continues to be the case, Wells said.
She said the Taliban should enter into negotiations with the government of Afghanistan whether privately or publicly.
Tillerson has been quite explicit that there is a role and a place at the table for moderate Taliban, Wells said.
"The task right now is how do we get the Taliban to the negotiating table. There has to be increased military pressure... but second there has to be political pressure and coordinated international pressure on the Taliban that includes ensuring that the Taliban political commission in Doha is doing its essential function which is facilitating peace negotiations," Wells added.
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