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Talk to Kabul, US Envoy Tells Taliban

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FILE - U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, talks with local reporters at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 18, 2018.

The U.S. special representative for Afghan reconciliation is urging direct talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government as he confirmed details in a draft peace deal aimed at ending the 17-year conflict in the country.

Zalmay Khalilzad told the New York Times in Kabul that the deal framework would have to be "fleshed out before it becomes an agreement," but stressed the Taliban "have committed, to our satisfaction, to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals.”

In return, the U.S. may be willing to give in to the prime Taliban demand of withdrawing its troops from the country given that other conditions, including a comprehensive cease-fire and the start of a dialogue with Kabul, are met. U.S. and Taliban officials had held six days of talks in Doha. Details of their draft deal first started appearing Saturday.

“I have encouraged the Taliban to engage in direct talks with the Afghan government. It is our policy to get to intra-Afghan talks,” Khalilzad told reporters in the Afghan capital Monday.

The Taliban have so far refused to meet directly with the Kabul administration, which has been a sticking point in the negotiations so far.

All hinges on US withdrawal

In a statement after the talks with the U.S. ended Saturday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the insurgency’s position on the issue was clear.

“[U]ntil the issue of withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan is agreed upon, progress in other issues is impossible,” the statement read.

FILE - U.S. troops listen to a security briefing before leave their base in Logar province, Afghanistan, Aug. 5, 2018.
FILE - U.S. troops listen to a security briefing before leave their base in Logar province, Afghanistan, Aug. 5, 2018.

Khalilzad urged all Afghans to get beyond their political differences to take advantage of the momentum generated by multiple rounds of negotiations.

“I believe for the first time I can say that we have made significant progress…. Seize this opportunity,” he said.

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​In Washington, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said he was encouraged by the recent talks with the Taliban.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in an address to the nation Monday, also called on the insurgent group to “start a serious dialogue with the Afghan government.”

Ghani has made multiple offers to the Taliban to negotiate “anytime anywhere” without any preconditions, but Taliban have rejected his proposals.

Talks between the Taliban and American diplomats started last summer in Doha. In September, Khalilzad was appointed by President Donald Trump to help negotiate an end to the 17-year-long conflict. Since then, he has held several rounds with the Taliban.

In the last round of talks between the two sides in Abu Dhabi in December, the Kabul administration had sent a team led by National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib, in hopes that it would meet the Taliban directly. But the Taliban team refused to talk to their fellow Afghans, despite meeting with the Americans.

If Taliban continue to refuse meeting the Afghan government, it could potentially unravel the progress made so far.

“The key for finding the solutions for Afghan problems is at the hands of Afghans now,”Khalilzad said.

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