US, Taliban on ‘threshold’ of peace deal

Doha, September 1

US and Taliban negotiators are “at the threshold of an agreement” to end 18 years of conflict between them, Washington’s top negotiator said on Sunday as he concluded their latest talks.

The foes have been meeting in Doha to finalise a deal under which the Taliban would give security guarantees in return for sharp reductions to the 13,000-strong US force in Afghanistan.

Washington’s special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted that he would travel to Kabul later Sunday “for consultations” following the end of the eighth and final day of the latest round of talks.

The US negotiator did not say if he had a finalised text to submit to the Afghan authorities but several officials have hinted in recent days that moving talks to Kabul could signal a positive outcome.

“Despite speculation, we do not yet have an announcement to make,” a US State Department spokesperson said.

US troops were first sent to Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks carried out by Al-Qaida, which was sheltered by the former Taliban regime. Washington now wants to end its military involvement — the longest in its history — and has been talking to the Taliban since at least 2018.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo previously said he hoped a deal would be finalised before September 1 ahead of Afghan polls due later this month, and next year’s US presidential vote.

The Taliban’s spokesman in Doha Suhail Shaheen said a deal “is near to finalised”.

The apparent final phase of talks follows an excruciating few months for Afghans. The war-torn nation’s people have watched on largely voiceless as US negotiators cut a deal with the Taliban while largely sidelining the government of President Ashraf Ghani.

This ninth round of talks has also progressed to a backdrop of persistent violence with the Taliban staging a brazen attack on the northern city of Kunduz. Afghan security forces say they have “repelled” the coordinated assault.

The comment came as Taliban fighters attacked Pul-e Khumri, in the northern province of Baghlan, just a day after a major show of strength by hundreds of fighters who overran parts of Kunduz, a strategic city the insurgents have twice come close to taking in recent years.

The interior ministry said in a statement on Sunday that 20 Afghan security force members and five civilians were killed, and at least 85 civilians were injured in Kunduz city during clashes with the Taliban fighters.

While Kunduz was calm after clearance operations that had driven out insurgents, interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said, fighters had taken up positions in two areas of Pul-e Khumri and were battling Afghan security forces.

Afghan forces killed five gunmen and arrested two militants during the clearance operation in Pul-e-Khumri city, Rahimi said.

Local officials and residents said the city was locked down with Taliban fighters occupying positions around one of the main entry points into the centre and cutting the main highway connecting Kabul with the north.

There was also fighting in the central province of Ghazni and Laghman province, east of Kabul, Taliban and government officials said. — Agencies

Contours of Afghan Agreement 

  • Agreement will centre on the US withdrawing troops in exchange for a Taliban guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a jihadist safe haven
  • Negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghanistan  government, and an eventual ceasefire, will also be key pillars of any agreement

FOR NEGOTIATION

We are at the threshold of an agreement that will reduce violence and open the door for Afghans to sit together to negotiate  honourable and sustainable peace. — Zalmay Khalilzad, US special envoy