US and Taliban negotiators on Saturday began a fresh round of negotiations in Qatar's capital Doha to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan. Delegates from both sides described the latest round as the "most crucial" phase of the negotiations.
Officials privy to the talks say a peace agreement could possibly be expected before August 13 and would enable foreign forces to leave the conflict-torn nation.
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 presence in Afghanistan is conditions-based, and any withdrawal will be conditions-based," he said, adding that the Taliban are signaling they would conclude an agreement. "We are ready for a good agreement."
Two Taliban spokespersons Suhail Shaheen and Zabihullah Mujahid said a 19-member negotiation team will represent the insurgent group in the Doha peace talks.
"The issue of forces withdrawal has prolonged the peace talks and delayed the deal," a senior Taliban commander based in Afghanistan told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
About 20,000 foreign troops, most of them American, are in Afghanistan as part of a US-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces.
Thorny issues remain
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani declared recently that "peace is coming" to the war-torn nation, but his administration has so far been excluded from peace talks with the Taliban. The insurgent group has remained steadfast in its refusal to negotiate with Ghani's government, which it regards as a US "puppet" regime.
The Afghan government's grip on power and control of territory has weakened over the past couple of years, as the Taliban now control or influence about half of Afghanistan.
The insurgents control more territory now than at any point since the US-led international coalition toppled their regime in 2001.
Read more: US to reduce Afghanistan forces by 2020
US President Donald Trump wants American combat forces reduced in Afghanistan by the next US presidential election in November 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last month.
On Friday, Trump told reporters at the White House that "we've made a lot of progress. We're talking."
Meanwhile, Afghan civilian casualties are again on the rise. The United Nations said on Saturday that civilian casualty rates across the country jumped back to record levels last month, following a dip earlier in the year. More than 1,500 civilians were killed or wounded in the conflict in July, the highest monthly toll so far in 2019 and the deadliest single month since May 2017.
Even if the US-Taliban talks produce a peace deal, the thorny issues of power-sharing with the Taliban, the role of regional powers including Pakistan and India, and the fate of Ghani's administration will remain unresolved.
sri/aw (Reuters, AFP)