A fresh round of US-Taliban peace talks have begun in Qatar’s capital Doha, officials say, describing it as 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be expected at the end of the eighth round of talks, possibly before August 13, and would enable foreign forces to be withdrawn from the war-torn country.
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.”
Zalmay #Khalilzad, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, has left Kabul for Doha, saying the U.S. and Afghanistan have agreed on next steps of the peace process.
He in a tweet says that a #negotiating team and technical support are being finalized. pic.twitter.com/bbaJzaKzWR
— Khoram (@okhorammm) July 31, 2019
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.
The hardline Islamist Taliban group now controls more territory than at any point since the United States bombed them out of power in 2001.
Two Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen and Zabihullah Mujahid, said a 19-member Taliban negotiation team will represent them in the Doha peace talks.
“The issue of forces withdrawal has prolonged the peace talks and delayed the deal,” said a senior Taliban commander based in Afghanistan on conditions of anonymity.
“There was no way we would allow permanent stay of US forces in Afghanistan after signing a peace deal with them,” he said, adding that Taliban will provide complete assurance that no foreign militant group will be allowed to use Afghanistan to launch attacks against the United States and its allies.
US President Donald Trump wants combat forces reduced in Afghanistan by the next US presidential election in November 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last month.
Fighting in Afghanistan has not subsided. More than 1500 civilians were killed and injured in July, a record monthly toll this year, and the highest number documented in a month since May 2017, United Nations of Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in a statement on Saturday.