By Arab News
By Sayed Salahuddin
Talks between Taliban delegates and US diplomats in Qatar have entered a crucial stage, with the finalization of a draft agreement pushing for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan said to be not far away.
A member of the American negotiating team on Friday described the talks as “very productive,” while strenuously denying Washington sought a fixed deadline for the withdrawal of its estimated 14,000 troops from Afghanistan as part of a final peace deal.
The news comes as Afghan politicians make their way to Doha, Qatar, to begin their own discussions with the group on Sunday.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said both Germany and Qatar have jointly hosted the intra-Afghan dialogue.
“We have made some progress,” he told The Associated Press on Friday, “we are working on the draft agreement.”
Negotiations have had fresh momentum in recent weeks after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, at the end of last month. At the time, he said Washington was hopeful of an agreement before Sept. 1.
The appointment last year of Zalmay Khalilzad as a US special peace envoy began the accelerated effort to find a negotiated end to Afghanistan’s war and America’s longest military engagement. Since then Khalilzad has held scores of talks with the Afghan government in Kabul and abroad, with the Taliban as well as with Afghanistan’s neighbors — including Pakistan which has been accused of aiding the insurgents.
The US official in Qatar’s capital, Doha, where the Taliban maintain a political office and talks are being held, told The Associated Press that the US “definitely did not offer” an 18-month withdrawal as part of a peace deal.
Speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the talks, the US negotiator was responding to a timeframe Taliban official told the AP months earlier.
The US negotiator said the deal being negotiated in Doha with the Taliban is “comprehensive and includes specifics on all four parts including a cease fire, timeline, participating in intra-Afghan negotiations and counter-terrorism assurances.”
A spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Samin Aref, refused to comment about the reported progress on the draft agreement, which has been discussed in previous rounds of US-Taliban summits without the inclusion of Ghani’s government.
Proposed talks between the two parties are also said to have collapsed as a result of disagreements over which government figures would be present aThe Taliban has held at least two rounds of talks with opposition politicians in Moscow in the past six months, but refused to hold meetings with Ghani, saying it would give him legitimacy ahead of upcoming presidential elections, calling him a “US puppet.”
Political analyst Wahidullah Ghazikhail said US and Taliban talks had reached a “sensitive” period, and the fact that government officials were now attending them “was a good start.”
The talks have been overshadowed in some quarters by the mixed messages of US President Donald Trump, who has made no secret of his desire to pull US personnel out of Afghanistan at a faster rate than many senior US and Afghan military figures feel comfortable with.
US Envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has in the past said troop withdrawals had been part of the agenda of talks with the Taliban, but that the US wanted “a comprehensive peace agreement” from the discussions, “not (just) a withdrawal agreement.”