US, Taliban talk troop withdrawal, counter-terrorism at peace talks

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American and Taliban officials looking to end a 17-year war in Afghanistan began their most detailed and high-level discussions yet on foreign troop withdrawals and counter-terrorism on Tuesday, officials close to the peace negotiations said.

The talks, which kicked off in Doha on Monday with a meet-and-greet lunch, are seen as the most promising yet between the warring parties after the Taliban’s newly-appointed political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar joined for the first time, flying in from Pakistan.

The two sides are looking to hammer out a timeline and logistics for a potential troop withdrawal, as well as guarantees that the Taliban will not host militant groups as the US winds down its presence, sources close to the talks said.

“The Taliban knows foreign forces are committed to withdrawal, but we have the responsibility to ensure that Afghanistan does not get used as a base to launch terror attacks on foreign nations,” one of the officials said.

Some 14,000 US troops are based in Afghanistan as part of a US-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some US forces also carry out counter-terrorism operations.

US military officials have been brought in to join this week’s talks in Doha, a second official said, raising hopes for progress after the last round in January secured a broad framework agreement but few details on critical aspects of a ceasefire and withdrawal.

“We have all the right people in the room on both sides,” the second official said.

US President Donald Trump told Congress this month he intended to reduce US forces from Afghanistan as negotiators make progress in talks with Taliban insurgents, saying: “Great nations do not fight endless wars.”

The US team, led by special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, is also pushing for the Taliban to meet with the Afghan government, which the group has so far snubbed, and to agree on a ceasefire ahead of its annual spring offensive, sources said.

The hardline Islamist movement considers the Afghan government a puppet regime of the US and has refused direct talks.

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