KABUL: Taliban officials said US negotiators on Saturday agreed to a draft peace deal stipulating the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan within 18 months of the agreement being signed.

The details were provided by Taliban sources at the end of six days of talks with US special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Qatar aimed at ending the United States’ longest war.

They have yet to be confirmed by US officials and none of the sides has released an official statement. Officials at the US embassy in Kabul were not immediately available for comment.

Khalilzad was heading to the Afghan capital Kabul to brief President Ashraf Ghani about the longer-than-expected talks, the sources and a diplomat said.

According to the Taliban sources, the Islamist group offered assurances that Afghanistan would not be allowed to be used by Al Qaeda and the militant Islamic State (IS) group to attack the United States and its allies — a key early demand of Washington.

Ambassador Khalilzad confirms the talks in Qatar have made ‘significant progress’ in finding a solution to the 17-year-old war

It is not known if a draft acceptable to both sides has been finalised, or when it might take effect.

According to the Taliban sources, a key provision in the deal includes a ceasefire, but they have yet to confirm a timeline. Also, Taliban will only open talks with Afghan representatives once the ceasefire is implemented.

“In 18 months if the foreign forces are withdrawn and ceasefire is implemented then other aspects of the peace process can be put into action,” a Taliban source said, quoting from a portion of the draft.

Other clauses include a deal over the exchange and release of prisoners from the warring sides, the removal of an international travel ban on several Taliban leaders by the United States, and the prospect of an interim Afghan government after the ceasefire is put into effect, according to the sources.

The offer to appoint an interim government in Afghanistan comes at a time when top politicians including Ghani have filed their nominations for the presidential polls in July this year. Ghani has repeatedly rejected the offer to agree to the formation of an interim government.

News of progress on a deal comes as the Taliban continue to stage nearly daily attacks against the Western-backed Afghan government and its security forces.

Despite the presence of US-led foreign forces who train, advise and assist their Afghan counterparts 17 years after the US led an invasion to drive them from power, the Taliban control nearly half of Afghanistan.

The United States has some 14,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of the Nato-led mission, known as Resolute Support, as well as a US counterterrorism mission directed at groups such as IS and Al Qaeda.

Despite reports in December that the United States was considering pulling out almost half of its forces, a White House spokesman said that President Donald Trump had not issued orders to withdraw the troops. However, the administration has not denied the reports, which have also prompted fears of a fresh refugee crisis.—Reuters

Khalilzad confirmed the talks in Qatar had made “significant progress” in finding a solution to the war in Afghanistan, Anwar Iqbal reported from Washington.

“After six days in Doha, I’m headed to #Afghanistan for consultations. Meetings here were more productive than they have been in the past,” he tweeted. “We made significant progress on vital issues.”

Elaborating on the process that led to the significant development, he said that both the US and Taliban teams worked hard to find a peaceful solution to the war.

“Will build on the momentum and resume talks shortly. We have a number of issues left to work out,” he wrote.

He added a note of caution in one of the three tweets he released before leaving for Kabul. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and ‘everything’ must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive ceasefire,” he wrote.

The statement indicated that the US side was still trying to persuade Taliban to include the Afghan government in the talks. The insurgents have been refusing to hold direct talks with the Afghan government, insisting that Kabul does not have the power to fulfil their main demand: the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.

Ambassador Khalilzad also thanked the government of Qatar for “their constructive engagement and their facilitation of this round of talks. Particularly the deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, for his personal involvement”.

Earlier, several American media outlets too said the US and Taliban negotiators had “finalised” a deal on the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.

The semi-official Voice of America broadcasting service said the details of the new plan could be “announced as early as Monday, if all goes well”.

Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2019