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Tuesday, May 23, 2023

9th Round of Peace talks continue tonight – Taliban, US on cusp of deal

Last session of talks concluded with disagreements around Taliban cease-fire declaration, a major US demand. No final decision has been made yet on time frame of US forces’ withdrawal, an Afghan official says.

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News Desk |

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said talks in Qatar to finalize a much-anticipated peace agreement to end the long Afghan civil war would resume on Friday and likely continue late into the night.

Representatives from the Taliban and the United States sat down in Qatar on Thursday for a ninth round of talks to put the final touches on a deal that will enable the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in return for Taliban security guarantees. “There is no meeting in day time because of Jumma [Friday congregation prayers],” Mujahid told Arab News. “However, negotiations will start later in the evening and are likely to continue until late at night.”

After 18 years of war and months of direct talks with the Taliban leaders, the US appears to be at the cusp of reaching a deal that could allow a pullout of foreign forces followed by a cease-fire between the warring sides. The US team in the negotiations is being led by US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban negotiation team by Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai. Head of the US-led Resolute Support Mission forces General Scott Miller is also part of the negotiations.

The Taliban now control more territory than at any point since the United States bombed them out of power in 2001 for sheltering Al-Qaeda, the group blamed for the September 11 attacks on the United States.

Hours before his departure for Qatar, Khalilzad had said in a Twitter post: “We’re ready. Let’s see if the Taliban are as well.” A Taliban source with knowledge of the negotiations in Qatar said the eighth round of talks that concluded earlier this month had broken down over disagreements around a cease-fire declaration from the Taliban, a major US demand.

Speaking to Arab News, he said Khalilzad was insisting that the Taliban should declare cease-fire across Afghanistan while the previous understanding was that Taliban fighters would observe cease-fire in particular areas from where foreign forces withdrew.

The Taliban official said the head of the group’s political office, Mullah Baradar, had offered a 14-month timeframe for withdrawal, but no final decision had yet been taken and the issue of a timeframe was still under discussion. Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a senior member of the Afghan High Peace Council, told Arab News that the Taliban and the US were closer than ever to a deal but the US desire to keep intelligence agents in Afghanistan was a major hurdle.

Read more: Afghanistan: Peace talks & hiccups

“The US and the Taliban have agreed on many issues and I would say only 10 percent complicated issues are yet to be resolved,” Abdul Hakim Mujahid said in Islamabad, where he is taking part in a Pakistan-Afghanistan Track-II dialogue. “Americans want to keep CIA-trained operatives who are known for repressive operations and Taliban do not want them.” Representatives from the US could not be reached for comment.

Asked if the Afghan people were ready to accept a Taliban deal with the US, the High Peace Council member said common Afghans were in favor of an agreement as they wanted an end to the conflict and desired to see foreign forces quit Afghanistan.

Taliban and US negotiators have held eight rounds of talks since October but have failed to finalize an agreement. During a visit to Afghanistan in June, US Secretary of State Pompeo said he hoped to have a peace deal with the Taliban by September 1.

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. Some US forces carry out counter-terrorism operations. US President Donald Trump said on Tuesday the US military’s role in Afghanistan had basically turned into a “ridiculous” police force in a sign that he is open to a US troop drawdown there after 18 years of war.

Read more: Two US soldiers killed in Afghanistan as peace talks resume

The two sides have held discussions over a potential agreement on four key issues: a Taliban guarantee that it will not allow foreign militants to use Afghanistan as a launchpad to conduct attacks outside the country, the complete withdrawal of US and NATO forces, an intra-Afghan dialogue and a permanent cease-fire.

The Taliban now control more territory than at any point since the United States bombed them out of power in 2001 for sheltering Al-Qaeda, the group blamed for the September 11 attacks on the United States. It has demanded a complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and has rejected holding direct talks with the Afghan government.