Ayaz Gul – Voice of America
The Taliban said Saturday that they expected negotiations with the United States to conclude the following day, finalizing a peace deal to end the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan.
The crucial ninth round in the yearlong dialogue between the two adversaries started Thursday in the traditional venue, the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. Afghan-born U.S. diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad is leading the American team of negotiators.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told VOA on Saturday that the two sides were fleshing out details of a mechanism for U.S.-led foreign troops to withdraw from the country.
'We are Hopeful'
"Inshallah [God willing], this time we are hopeful that each and every thing will be finalized. Work is underway to streamline the mechanism, but there is no such sticking point left that is not agreeable," Mujahid said.
He said the "mechanism" would outline the nature of an American troop drawdown, areas where it will begin and the duration needed to complete the process.
Mujahid said Taliban and American negotiators would require "one more day" to shape up the details. He spoke to VOA just before the two sides resumed a third day of discussions Saturday night in Doha, Qatar. Mujahid would not discuss the foreign troop withdrawal timeline, nor has the American side shared specifics.
Pro-Taliban media outlets, meanwhile, released a video message Saturday from the head of the insurgent negotiating team, Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai, claiming his group had brought U.S. and its NATO allies "on their knees" in war.
"I believe that Americans will leave Afghanistan very soon. Americans stand defeated and Afghanistan will again be liberated," Stanekzai said while addressing his colleagues in the Qatar office just days before he entered into the current round of talks with American interlocutors.
Stanekzai's assertions strengthen fears that the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces would embolden the Taliban, and that the insurgents may not uphold their commitments.
Khalilzad plans to travel to Kabul after finishing the talks with the Taliban in Doha, reportedly to share details of the agreement with the Afghan leadership.
Taliban political spokesman Suahil Shaheen, in a recent interview, told VOA the final agreement with the U.S. would be signed in the presence of international guarantors, including Russia, China, Pakistan and other neighbors of Afghanistan, as well as the United Nations.
The U.S.-Taliban deal reportedly could mean the withdrawal of all 20,000 foreign troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2020.
Within the first few months, Washington would bring down the number of American forces to about 8,600 from roughly 14,000 now. The residual military force reportedly would remain in Afghanistan to ensure the Taliban are living up to their part of the commitments outlined in the agreement.
Taliban officials have said the deal being negotiated with the U.S. would require the insurgent group to open a peace process with Afghan stakeholders to discuss a cease-fire or reduction in attacks against government forces and matters related to future political governance.
U.S. officials say the Taliban also would be bound to prevent al-Qaida from establishing a safe haven in insurgent-controlled Afghan areas, and to help defeat Islamic State terrorists in the country.
The Afghan branch of Islamic State has intensified its deadly attacks in the country lately, raising questions about whether a U.S.-Taliban deal could end violence in Afghanistan. Last week, Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at a wedding ceremony in Kabul that killed more than 80 people and injured about 160 others. Almost all the victims were civilians.
President Donald Trump has been a strong critic of U.S. involvement in overseas wars. He promised during his 2016 presidential campaign that he would extricate America from international conflicts.
Trump appears to be eager to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan before next year's presidential election.
Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani's aides have said a U.S.-Taliban deal must lead to a cease-fire and direct peace talks between the government and insurgents.
Ghani, who is seeking re-election in the presidential vote set for Sept. 28, told a campaign rally in Kabul this week that his administration was determined to hold the election because only an elected government could represent Afghans in peace talks with the Taliban.
The insurgent group refuses to engage in any talks with the government in Kabul, however, dismissing them as American puppets and an outcome of the "foreign invasion" of Afghanistan. The intra-Afghan talks, if and when they start, will include government officials among the delegates representing the Afghan society, but they will not participate as government representatives, Mujahid reiterated Saturday.