Troop pullout remains key to Doha peace deal

Updated August 04, 2019

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“We have reached an agreement on eighty per cent of the issues. The remaining 20 per cent involves a timeline regarding the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and one other issue,” Suhail Shaheen, Taliban’s chief spokesperson in Doha, told Dawn. — AP/File
“We have reached an agreement on eighty per cent of the issues. The remaining 20 per cent involves a timeline regarding the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and one other issue,” Suhail Shaheen, Taliban’s chief spokesperson in Doha, told Dawn. — AP/File

PESHAWAR: Afghan Taliban on Saturday said they had reached 80 per cent agreement with their American interlocutors but that a time frame for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan remained a key sticking point.

“We have reached an agreement on eighty per cent of the issues. The remaining 20 per cent involves a timeline regarding the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and one other issue,” Suhail Shaheen, Taliban’s chief spokesperson in Doha, told Dawn.

Mr Shaheen didn’t say what that “other issue” was but said it was a minor issue and not as big an issue as American troops leaving Afghanistan.

Taliban claim to have agreement with US negotiators on 80pc issues, ready for intra-Afghan dialogue in next phase

His statement comes when American negotiators led by US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad met a team of Afghan Taliban in the Qatari capital Doha on Saturday.

The latest round of talks is being viewed as crucial amid renewed optimism of a breakthrough on a time frame for the US withdrawal to end 18 years of bloody conflict in the central Asian country.

“We remain optimistic,” the Taliban spokesman said. “We hope to clinch an agreement in this round of talks,” he said but hastened to add that the Americans had been making such indications earlier as well.

He was referring to recent reports that the Trump administration wanted to pull out of Afghanistan before the 2020 elections, beginning with a nearly 50 per cent cut in the existing number of 14,000 troops.

President Trump has made no secret about his opposition to American troops’ presence in Afghanistan that has cost the US around $900 billion and 2,400 lives of its soldiers.

“The Americans have been making such indications but so far nothing of the sort has been brought to the table or put on paper,” the spokesperson said. “Timeline is more important and we are hopeful a decision would be reached in this round of talks.”

Asked if the Afghan Taliban would agree to the US demands for a truce and beginning of an intra-Afghan dialogue involving the Ashraf Ghani administration, the spokesperson said all such matters would come under discussion only when they had a peace agreement with the US.

“We recognise the significance and importance of an intra-Afghan dialogue and a ceasefire in Afghanistan, but these would come up for discussion when we will have a peace agreement with the Americans,” said Mr Shaheen.

“An agreement with the Americans is part one. Part two will begin only when we will have an agreement on the foreign forces withdrawal from Afghanistan.”

He made it clear that the Afghan Taliban did not recognise the government in Kabul. “We don’t recognise the government in Kabul. But we do recognise it as party to the conflict and like many other Afghan parties, it too will be engaged in an intra-Afghan dialogue.”

“However, this will happen only when the American chapter (in Afghanistan) will be closed.

“Then we can start an intra-Afghan dialogue to discuss ceasefire and other issues,” Mr Shaheen said.

Asked if the Afghan Taliban had received a formal invitation from Islamabad, the spokesperson said no such communication had been made so far. “We have not received any formal invitation from Islamabad so far.”

“We send our delegation to other foreign capitals, too, so we shall send a team to Islamabad, too, once we receive a formal invitation,” the spokesperson explained.

Pakistan’s foreign office has said it is working on sending a formal invite to the Afghan Taliban Office in Doha to meet Prime Minister Imran Khan.

In his recent visit to Washington, PM Khan had indicated he would invite the Afghan Taliban to Islamabad to urge them to sit down with the Ghani administration.

Pakistan’s similar overture ran into trouble early this year when Kabul objected to the PM’s meeting with the Afghan Taliban and the meeting had to be called off.

Mr Khan indicated in DC that Pakistan had been able to address Kabul’s concern and that Afghanistan no longer had any objection to it.

Asked if the Taliban would consider Mr Khan’s request for direct negotiations with Kabul, the spokesperson said their policy remained unchanged. “One thing cannot happen without the other,” he said. “It’s our stated policy. Intra-Afghan dialogue will start immediately when we will have an agreement with the Americans on foreign forces withdrawal from Afghanistan.”

Published in Dawn, August 4th, 2019