Amid Talks of Withdrawal or Ceasefire First, US-Taliban Peace Deal Inches Forward

“We want peace to give us the possibility to withdraw.” 

PKONWEB Report – US  Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and  Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alice G Wells were in Islamabad last week.

They held meetings with Pakistani authorities as part of regular  consultations, on bilateral relationship and the ongoing Afghan peace talks.

Khalilazad stressed that any peace agreement with the Afghan Taliban would depend on the declaration of a permanent ceasefire and a commitment to end the country’s long war.

In an interview with Afghanistan’s largest private television  station, Tolo News,  the US special envoy for peace in Afghanistan said the Taliban’s demands were focused on the withdrawal of US forces (first) from the country.

“(But) Our focus is on terrorism. No agreement will be done if we don’t see a permanent ceasefire and a commitment to end the war,” said Khalilzad. “We are seeking peace and (a) political settlement … We want peace to  give us the possibility to withdraw.”

The United States has about 14,000 troops in war-ravaged Afghanistan since October 2001 as part of a  NATO-led mission, known as Resolute Support.

U.S. President Donald Trump wants to reach an agreement to end his country’s longest-ever (unwinnable) war, which dislodged the Taliban from power in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

However, intense fighting is still going on all over the country, and while  the Taliban are negotiating, they now control and influence more territory than at any point since 2001.

Taliban officials familiar with the negotiations told AP that the U.S. was seeking a year and a half to withdraw its estimated 14,000 troops from Afghanistan, while the Taliban wanted it done in six months

A plan to cut the number of staff at the U.S. embassy in Kabul by up to half starting late this month has alarmed some who fear such a move could undermine the fragile peace process.

After several rounds of talks with the Taliban over the months in Doha, Khalilzad reported some progress toward an accord on withdrawing U.S. troops and on how the Taliban would prevent extremists from using Afghanistan to launch attacks as al Qaeda  did in 2001.

But the Taliban still refuse to negotiate with President Ashraf Ghani’s government, which they call a puppet regime controlled by the United States.

Khalilzad told Tolo news that he had tried in recent weeks to foster such a dialogue, adding there had been some progress “but not as much as I wanted”.

Hoping to renew the push for direct talks with the Taliban, President Ashraf Ghani convened a grand consultative assembly.

The Loya Jirga, a traditional gathering of elders, religious scholars, and prominent Afghans, saw more than 3,000 people gather amid tight security for four days of discussion under a large tent in Kabul.

Pakistan has been supportive of the peace talks and made it clear last week it will not be party to any Afghan conflict. Pakistan is highly dismayed by the surge of violence in Afghanistan from all sides. The so called offensives are condemnable and will undermine the peace process, it said.  

Prime Misiter Imran Khan said, “It is not right to seek an edge in dialogue through coercion. Pakistan implores all parties to recognize the importance of the moment and seize it.” 

Khalilzad has greatly appreciated PM Khan’s statement on Afghanistan. 

“PM Imran’s appeal for reduction of violence and policy against promoting internal conflict in other nations has potential to positively transform the region and give Pakistan a leading role.”

The Taliban on Saturday said the gap is narrowing in talks with Washington’s special peace envoy over a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The two sides are continuing to meet in Qatar, where the insurgent movement maintains a political office.

“There are proposals to lower the gap between the two sides, but (it) still needs negotiation to reach a final agreement,” said Taliban spokesman in Doha, Suhail Shaheen in an English language statement to AP.

Both sides have offered new proposals for drawing down U.S. and NATO forces. This would be a significant initial step toward a deal to end nearly 18 years of war and America’s longest and costliest military engagement- $16 trillion and running.