Talks between the US and the Taliban seeking to end nearly 18 years of war in Afghanistan resumed in Doha on Saturday, the Taliban said.
“Today the talks began,” the insurgent group's spokesman in Doha, Suhail Shaheen, told AFP.
Officials described it to be the “most crucial” phase of negotiations to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan.
Senior officials privy to the talks said a peace agreement could be expected at the end of the eighth round of talks and would enable foreign forces to be withdrawn from the war-torn country.
In 2001, a coalition led by Washington invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban, accusing it of harbouring Al Qaeda militants who claimed the attacks that killed almost 3,000 people.
Now, the US wants to withdraw thousands of troops and is hoping for a breakthrough. However, any drawdown would be on condition the insurgent group renounces Al Qaeda and curbs attacks.
The hardline Taliban group now controls more territory than at any point since the United States bombed them out of power.
Washington is hoping to strike a peace deal with the Taliban by September 1 — ahead of Afghan polls due the same month, and US presidential polls due in 2020.
US President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House on Friday that “we've made a lot of progress. We're talking”.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US peace envoy for Afghanistan who has held a series of meetings with Taliban leaders since last year, reached Doha on Friday night.
“Just got to Doha to resume talks with the Taliban. We are pursuing a peace agreement not a withdrawal agreement,” Khalilzad wrote on Twitter.
“A peace agreement that enables withdrawal. Our (US) presence in Afghanistan is conditions-based, and any withdrawal will be conditions-based,” he said, adding the Taliban are signalling they would conclude an agreement.
“We are ready for a good agreement.”
Two sources with knowledge of the talks said an agreement on the withdrawal of foreign forces in exchange for security guarantees by the Taliban is expected before August 13.
About 20,000 foreign troops, most of them American, are now in Afghanistan as part of a US-led Nato mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces.
'No Afghan is inferior'
In another sign of progress, the Afghan government has formed a negotiating team for separate peace talks with the Taliban that diplomats hope could be held as early as later this month.
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that an initial deal to end the war would see the US force in Afghanistan reduced to as low as 8,000 from the current level of around 14,000.
In exchange, the Taliban would abide by a ceasefire, renounce Al-Qaeda, and talk to the Kabul administration.
An Afghan official hinted last week that the government of President Ashraf Ghani was preparing for direct talks with the Taliban, the details of which have yet to be announced.
“We have no preconditions to begin talks, but the peace agreement is not without conditions,” Ghani wrote in Pashto on his Facebook page on Friday ahead of the talks.
“We want a republic government not an emirate,” he said, a challenge to the Taliban which has insisted on reverting to the “Islamic Emirate” name Afghanistan bore under its rule.
“The negotiations will be tough, and the Taliban should know that no Afghan is inferior in religion or courage to them.”
'Joined at the hip'
Council on Foreign Relations counter-terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman said that he doubted the Taliban would ever renounce Al Qaeda — potentially hindering any deal.
“I believe that the Taliban and Al Qaeda will remain joined at the hip,” he told AFP, questioning the sense of “believing the word of terrorist organisations”.
“The Taliban can negotiate with the United States,” he added but suggested that the Taliban would be unlikely to break their personal pledges to Al Qaeda.
“It means that Al Qaeda was going to continue fighting, counting on that once the US left Afghanistan it (the US) wasn't going to come back.
“Al Qaeda and the Taliban would have free rein. It's not a far-fetched assumption.”
The thorny issues of power-sharing with the Taliban, the role of regional powers including Pakistan and India, and the fate of Ghani's administration also remain unresolved.
The latest US-Taliban encounter follows last month's talks between influential Afghans and the Taliban which agreed a “roadmap for peace” — but stopped short of calling for a ceasefire.
Kabul resident Ali Yarmal, 23, said he hoped the US and the Taliban would sign a peace deal.
“We want a prosperous Afghanistan, we want a peaceful Afghanistan. I hope this peace process turns Afghanistan into prosperous country again,” he said.
Apparently believing they have the upper hand in the war, the Taliban have kept up attacks even while talking to the United States and agreeing to the Afghan dialogue.
The United Nations has said that civilian casualty rates across Afghanistan jumped back to record levels last month, following a dip earlier in the year.
More than 1,500 civilians were killed or wounded in the conflict in July, the highest monthly toll so far in 2019 and the deadliest single month since May 2017.