As United States and Taliban negotiators push to wrap up talks aimed at securing the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, disagreement remains about whether a pact will mean an end to the insurgents' fight with the US-backed Afghan government.
US and Taliban officials have been negotiating in Qatar since last year on an agreement centred on the withdrawal of US forces, and an end to their longest-ever war, in exchange for a Taliban guarantee that international militant groups will not plot from Afghan soil.
US negotiators have been pressing the Taliban to agree to peace talks with the Kabul government and to a ceasefire, but a senior Taliban official said that would not happen. “We will continue our fight against the Afghan government and seize power by force,” said the Taliban commander on condition of anonymity.
US President Donald Trump is impatient to get US forces out of Afghanistan and end the 18-year war that was launched after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on the US.
But there are fears among Afghan officials and US national security aides that a US troop withdrawal could see Afghanistan plunged into a new round of civil war that could herald a return of Taliban rule and international militants, including the militant Islamic State (IS) group, finding a refuge.
Another Taliban commander, who also declined to be identified, said a deal was expected to be signed this week under which US forces, which provide all-important air support to Afghan troops, will stop attacking the Taliban and the militants would end their fight against the US troops.
Under the pact, the US would also cease supporting the Afghan government, the Taliban officials said. “The Americans will not come to the assistance of the Afghan government and its forces in their fight against us,” the first Taliban official said.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the veteran Afghan-American diplomat who has been leading negotiations on the US side, however rejected the suggestion that US forces would no longer support the Kabul government, saying “no one should be intimidated or fooled by propaganda”.
“Let me be clear: We will defend Afghan forces now and after any agreement with the Talibs,” he wrote on Twitter in reaction to the Reuters report. He added, “All sides agree Afghanistan's future will be determined in intra-Afghan negotiations,” he said.
The disagreement highlights one of the most sensitive issues surrounding the US-Taliban talks — a resentment among many in the Afghan government that they have been sidelined from talks that will decide the future of their country.
It also raises a question over whether the Taliban leadership will be able to impose any peace agreement on field commanders who may be reluctant to give up fighting when they feel on the brink of victory.
The Taliban, fighting to expel foreign forces and re-establish a theocratic Islamic state since their ouster in October 2001, have refused to talk to the government, denouncing it as a US puppet although they have raised the possibility of negotiations after the deal on the US withdrawal is struck.
The militants now control more territory than they have since 2001 and the war has ground into a stalemate with casualties rising among civilians as well as combatants.
Some 14,000 US troops remain in Afghanistan, training and advising Afghan forces and conducting counterinsurgency operations.
About 17,000 troops from NATO allies and partners make up a NATO-led train, advise, assist mission called Resolute Support in Afghanistan. Out of those, about 8,000 are from the US with the others from other NATO members and partners.
The Taliban are demanding the withdrawal of all foreign forces. In a statement on Monday, the hardline group accused Salaam, a telecoms company owned by the Afghan government, of spying and warned it would treat its offices, employees and installations as military targets.
In June, the Taliban gave Afghan media a week to cease airing anti-Taliban announcements paid for by the government.
There has been no let-up in the fighting over the past year despite the talks. The US had not stopped conducting air strikes and helping Afghan forces to destroy camps run by the Taliban and IS fighters, a US official said.
At least 3,812 civilians were killed or wounded in the first half of 2019 in the war against militant groups, including a big increase in the number of casualties caused by government and foreign forces, the United Nations said in July.
Two diplomatic sources with knowledge of the ninth round of talks in Qatar said they expected an agreement to be finalised this week, enabling the US to pull out about half its forces.
An end to the fighting between the Taliban and Afghan government forces would have to be negotiated separately, they said.
“A ceasefire between the Afghan forces and the Taliban requires a separate agreement and deliberations are yet to begin,” said one diplomat who has monitored the Qatar talks.
“The US-Taliban agreement will stop US from conducting air strikes on the Taliban, and the Taliban will stop insider attacks on the US and other foreign soldiers,” the diplomat said.
One Western diplomat said preparations were being made for talks between the rival Afghan sides in Norway. A group of at least 30 Afghans had been identified by the government and its allies to talk to the Taliban.
Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban political office in Doha, said negotiations had gone on late into Sunday. The two sides would meet again later on Monday after internal talks in the morning, Shaheen said.
“Our meeting with the US team will resume in the early evening,” he said. Most issues had been resolved but a formal agreement had yet to be concluded, he added.