A United States envoy and the Taliban resumed negotiations Thursday on ending America’s longest war after earlier signaling they were close to a deal.
A Taliban member familiar with, but not part of, the talks that resumed in Qatar said US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad also met one-on-one Wednesday with the Taliban’s lead negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. The Taliban member spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk with reporters.
Baradar is one of the Taliban’s founders and has perhaps the strongest influence on the insurgent group’s rank-and-file members. Some in Afghanistan fear that Taliban fighters who reject a deal with the US could migrate to other militant groups such as the brutal local affiliate of the ISIS, which claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at a Kabul wedding over the weekend that killed at least 80 people.
That attack again raised fears among Afghans that a US-Taliban deal will bring little peace for long-suffering civilians who have died by the tens of thousands in the past decade alone.
The US and the Taliban have held eight previous rounds of negotiations in the past year on issues including a US troop withdrawal, a cease-fire, intra-Afghan negotiations to follow and Taliban guarantees that Afghanistan will not be a launch pad for global terror attacks.
Previously, Khalilzad has said the intra-Afghan negotiations will be the occasion to work out thorny issues such as constitutional reforms, the fate of the country’s many militias and even the name for Afghanistan, as the Taliban still refers to it as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
It was not immediately clear when a deal might be reached. President Donald Trump, who wants to bring home at least some of the 13,000 troops he says remain in Afghanistan before next year’s election, was briefed on the negotiations on Friday.
This week, Trump said it was “ridiculous” that US troops have been in the country for almost 18 years.
Two US service members were killed on Wednesday, joining more than 2,400 US service personnel who have died since the US-led invasion in 2001 to topple the Taliban, whose government had harbored al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Trump this week also said Afghanistan remains dangerous and “we have to have a presence” - a stance that could complicate talks with the Taliban, whose top demand has been the departure of all US and allied troops, which number close to 20,000. A Taliban spokesman said the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, was at the negotiations in Qatar on Thursday.
The US and NATO ended their combat mission in 2014 but continue to conduct strikes against the ISIS affiliate and the Taliban and train and build the Afghan military.
The prospect of a troop withdrawal has created widespread concern that another civil war in Afghanistan could follow as various armed parties jostle for power.
Afghanistan was the world’s deadliest conflict in 2018, and the United Nations has said more civilians died there last year than in the past decade. Over 32,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan in the past 10 years.
The Taliban, which now control roughly half of Afghanistan and are at their strongest since their 2001 defeat in the US-led invasion, have dismissed the Afghan government as a US puppet but have repeatedly offered talks with anyone who comes to the table as an ordinary Afghan.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Thursday night asserted that his government will see the final draft of a US-Taliban agreement for a “comprehensive discussion” before it is signed.
Afghanistan will not be significantly affected even if 5,000 US forces leave in the next five months, an option that has been under discussion, he added in a nationally televised interview.
Khalilzad, who plans to meet with the Afghan government in Kabul on this trip, has expressed his desire for an agreement by September 1, less than a month before Afghanistan’s presidential election. Ghani, who seeks a second term, has insisted the vote must take place to give the government a strong mandate to deal with the Taliban.