ISLAMABAD: A fresh round of talks between the US and the Taliban began in Qatar on Saturday, just days after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington is hoping for an Afghan peace agreement before Sept 1.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed that negotiations had begun in Doha. Originally scheduled to begin in the morning, the two sides sat down mid-afternoon for the seventh time in a series of direct talks that began last year following the appointment of US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.
As in previous talks between Khalilzad and the Taliban, the focus is on the withdrawal of US troops and Taliban guarantees to prevent Afghanistan from again hosting militants who can stage global attacks. Both sides say they have come to an understanding on the withdrawal and the guarantees but details have yet to be worked out.
In Kabul last week, Pompeo said “real progress” had been made on a draft agreement with the Taliban to ensure “that Afghan soil never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists”.
Militants accused of killing 25 pro-government forces in Baghlan province
Both Khalilzad and Pompeo have said that agreements with the Taliban will come hand in hand with understandings on an intra-Afghan dialogue and a permanent ceasefire. It was expected that a timetable would be among the discussion points in the Doha talks.
The Taliban’s negotiating team has been led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who co-founded the Taliban movement with its leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
The Taliban have refused to directly meet representatives of President Ashraf Ghani’s government but held several rounds of talks with a collection of Afghan personalities from Kabul, including former president Hamid Karzai, several prominent opposition leaders and government peace council members. Both those meetings were held in Moscow earlier this year.
The Taliban say they will meet Afghan government officials but only as ordinary Afghans and not representatives of the government until an agreement with the US is finalised, saying the US is the final arbiter on the Taliban’s biggest issue of troop withdrawal.
Khalilzad has been in the region for several weeks meeting a legion of regional and Afghan officials, including Ghani.
He has been relentless in his pursuit of an intra-Afghan dialogue after an earlier planned meeting between the government and the Taliban in Doha was scuttled when both sides disagreed on who should participate.
The Taliban have also refused a ceasefire. Taliban officials say they won’t agree to a ceasefire until troop withdrawal is in place.
That’s because sending Taliban fighters back to the battlefield if the US reneges on its promises could be difficult.
Also on Saturday, Afghan authorities accused the Taliban of killing at least 25 pro-government forces in northern Baghlan province.
The Taliban, who have stepped up attacks in recent months against Afghanistan’s beleaguered national security personnel, said the attacks were retaliation for earlier attacks on their fighters.
Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2019