Taliban peace deal, Afghanistan War end in sight

January 28, 2019 GMT

Thousands of miles away from the political crises in Washington and the chaos in Venezuela, the Trump administration is making quiet, unexpected progress toward a tentative peace deal in Afghanistan, with top U.S. officials saying they are closer than ever to a comprehensive agreement with the Taliban in the 18-year conflict.

After days of meetings in Qatar with senior Taliban leaders, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad expressed optimism that a deal is in sight to end nearly two decades of fighting. The Afghanistan-born American diplomat said the latest round of discussions between the U.S. delegation and Taliban leaders was more productive than ever, and he raised the prospect of being on the verge of securing peace in a nation ravaged by war since the U.S. invasion immediately after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

After the talks ended, Mr. Zhalilzad flew to Kabul to brief officials of the U.S.-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani on Sunday. One sticking point in negotiations over the years has been the refusal of the Taliban to negotiate directly with the Kabul government or to enter serious negotiations while U.S. and allied troops are still in Afghanistan.

“After six days in Doha, I’m headed to #Afghanistan for consultations. Meetings here were more productive than they have been in the past. We made significant progress on vital issues,” Mr. Khalilzad said in a Twitter post. “Will build on the momentum and resume talks shortly.”

Taliban sources told the Reuters news agency that a new round of talks with the U.S. is expected to begin Feb. 25 in Doha. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s co-founder and a former military commander who was released from prison in Pakistan last year, is expected to lead the Taliban delegation.

But Mr. Khalilzad also cautioned that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and ‘everything’ must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive cease-fire.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed the optimism, saying on Twitter that the U.S. is “serious about pursuing peace, preventing Afghanistan from continue to be a space for international terrorism & bringing home forces.”

Indeed, bringing U.S. forces home from Afghanistan remains the key factor in discussions and is a central demand from Taliban leaders, who insisted over the weekend that any comprehensive peace deal requires an American withdrawal. Taliban officials said they had secured a promise that American troops would be gone within 18 months, though officials in Washington didn’t verify that claim.

Troop withdrawal

The apparent progress in Qatar was made shortly after President Trump reportedly ordered Pentagon leaders to begin planning to bring home at least half of the 14,000 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan.

That decision irked Pentagon leaders and played a role in the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis, though the Afghanistan decision caused far less controversy than Mr. Trump’s unexpected order to fully withdraw from Syria.

Mr. Trump has found little support in Congress for withdrawing from Syria, where the Islamic State terrorist group has maintained a foothold and where Iranian-backed proxy groups are active on the battlefield.

But lawmakers of both parties have been much more receptive to the president’s call to rethink the Afghanistan mission, where American troops have been engaged in the longest U.S. war in history but where the Taliban controls much of the country and is far from defeated militarily.

“We have no more reason to be there, and I think it’s time to leave,” Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

The White House denied that Mr. Trump issued a formal order for a partial withdrawal from Afghanistan but has not denied that U.S. troop levels are under discussion.

Despite having been ousted from power by U.S. forces in late 2001, the Taliban has remained a stubborn force over the past decade and a half. The Taliban’s comeback has gained steam over the past two years, and the group has regularly clashed with Afghan security forces and carried out terrorist attacks across the country.

Taliban fighters also have launched brazen assaults on U.S. forces in Afghanistan, including an incident in October in which they targeted top U.S. commander Gen. Austin Scott Miller, who escaped unharmed.

Still, the U.S. has continued negotiations with Taliban leaders and has accepted that the group is a necessary evil to any real peace in Afghanistan. The direct discussions have accelerated since Mr. Khalilzad was named Mr. Trump’s “special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation” in September.

Roadblocks to peace

But significant roadblocks to peace remain. The Taliban have resisted a full cease-fire and have rejected direct negotiations with the Afghan government in Kabul. The U.S. is insisting on both conditions.

The administration also wants concrete guarantees that the Taliban will no longer associate with known al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. It was al Qaeda’s use of Afghanistan as a planning base for the attacks that sparked the U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban in early 2002.

Complicating the talks is the fact that the Taliban negotiating team in Qatar has included Muhammad Fazl and Khairullah Khairkhwa, two men once detained at Guantanamo Bay who were exchanged in 2014 for U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured in Afghanistan in 2009 after leaving his base.

In a statement after the meetings, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said progress has been made but stressed that no real deal can be made until the American troop withdrawal is complete.

“This round of negotiations revolving around the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and other vital issues saw progress,” he said, “but since issues are of critical nature and need comprehensive discussions, therefore it was decided that talks about unsolved matters will resume in similar future meetings.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, other Taliban officials told The Associated Press that they have reached an understanding on the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from their country and that the pullout will be complete within 18 months.

They also said they will no longer plot attacks on the U.S. or its allies from Afghan soil.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.