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US, Taliban Rewriting Draft Deal on Troop Withdrawal

FILE - Suhail Shaheen gives an interview in Islamabad, Nov. 14, 2001. The Taliban spokesman says the seventh and latest round of peace talks with the U.S. is "critical," as the militant group meets with Washington's envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Qatar.

Taliban and U.S. negotiators are scrambling to rewrite a draft agreement that will outline the withdrawal of American and NATO troops from Afghanistan and a verifiable Taliban guarantee to fight terrorism ahead of an all-Afghan peace conference Sunday.

Officials familiar with the talks, but not authorized to speak about them, say negotiations went late into the night Wednesday and were to resume again Thursday, the sixth day of direct talks between the insurgents and U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.

Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, told The Associated Press Thursday that “the talks are continuing and they will continue tomorrow as well. We have made some progress.”

Previously he said that a draft agreement was being rewritten to include agreed-upon clauses. On Thursday he said the two sides had broadened their discussion, without elaborating.

Troop withdrawal timing

Until now the two sides had been divided on the withdrawal timetable, with the United States seeking more time.

Taliban officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, earlier said the U.S. was seeking up to 18 months to complete a troop withdrawal even as U.S. President Donald Trump told Fox News earlier this week that a withdrawal had quietly begun and that troop strength had been cut to 9,000. The president’s statement has since been contradicted by a senior U.S. official, who said the force strength is unchanged at about 14,000.

Still, Trump’s statements reinforced the president’s often stated desire to leave Afghanistan and end America’s 18-year war, the longest in his country’s history.

Trump eagerness helps Taliban

His eagerness to pull out has strengthened the position of the Taliban, who effectively control half the country and won a key concession in the planning of the upcoming peace gathering, which will include no official delegation from the Afghan government.

Germany and Qatar, who are co-sponsoring the dialogue and issuing the invitations, said participants will attend “only in their personal capacity,” a condition President Ashraf Ghani has strenuously opposed. He has made no comment on Sunday’s meeting.

The Taliban have steadfastly refused to talk to Ghani’s government, calling it a U.S. puppet, but have said government officials can attend the conference as private citizens.

In a tweet Wednesday, Shaheen said 60 people will attend the peace gathering, which Khalilzad called an “essential element” in achieving a peace agreement in Afghanistan.

Atta-ul-Rahman Salim, deputy head of a government-appointed peace council, said the delegation from Kabul will include a cross-section of Afghanistan’s civil society, including women’s rights activists.

“It is a good first step to hear each other’s side,” he said.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who attended two previous meetings with the Taliban in Moscow, told The Associated Press he won’t be attending the Doha gathering because he will be in China. But, he added, “I fully support the coming intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha and am in the picture.”