WASHINGTON — The U.S. remains unwilling to hold direct talks with the Taliban, but the prospects for peace have risen since the recent start of a cease-fire in Afghanistan, a senior State Department official told lawmakers Wednesday.

“After more than 16 years of war, we see a real opportunity this year to start an Afghan peace process that could lead to a double settlement of the conflict,” Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Taliban and the Afghan government announced a three-day cease-fire to cover the Eid al-Fitr holiday. While the pause in fighting featured positive signs, the cease-fire deal ended Sunday night ― and on Wednesday, a Taliban attack killed around 30 Afghan soldiers, according to local media reports.

Although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made jump-starting the peace process in Afghanistan a high priority, the administration has resisted direct talks as a matter of Afghan sovereignty and positioned itself as a participant and facilitator.

Wells seized on reports of Taliban and Afghan forces praying together during the cease-fire as a sign of positive movement.

“If Afghan troops and Taliban foot-soldiers can pray together, then the Afghan people have every reason to believe that their leaders can come together and negotiate an end to this war,” she said.

That cautiously optimistic take drew skepticism from a few members committee, who questioned whether the White House could break the stalemate and force the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Wells said the issues involved “have to be negotiated with Afghans and not over the heads of Afghans,” and that the Taliban must recognize the Afghan government.

The comments come a day after Army Lt. Gen. Austin Scott Miller, nominated to succeed Army Gen. John Nicholson leading the American and NATO mission in Afghanistan told lawmakers he sees progress in the ongoing fight thanks to recent changes in military strategy there.

Wells weathered sharp questioning from both Democrats and Republicans, including Reps. Dana Rohrabacher, of California, and Ted Poe, of Texas, for whom skepticism toward Pakistan was one theme.

Republicans also questioned the assumptions and costs behind U.S. nation-building efforts in Afghanistan — as well as the administration’s “conditions-based” versus a “timeline-based” strategy.

“I find that alarming that there is no end in sight,” Poe said.

“President Trump has been very clear that we are not in the nation building business,” Wells replied, adding that, “We’re no longer giving the Taliban the luxury of knowing when the United States will leave.

But the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Eliot Engel, of New York, questioned why the hard line on direct talks.

“The way I see it is, if we can talk to Kim Jong Un, certainly we can talk to the Taliban,” Engel said.

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

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