The United States and the Taliban may have agreed on a plan for American troops to leave Afghanistan, sources privy to the development told VOA Saturday. In return, the insurgent group has given assurances that no international terrorist groups would be allowed to use Afghan soil to threaten America or any other country in the future.
The understanding is the outcome of nearly a week of intense, uninterrupted dialogue between U.S. and insurgent representatives in Doha, Qatar. Representatives of the host government and Pakistan also have been in attendance.
The sources told VOA they expected the two negotiating sides to announce the withdrawal plan by Monday at the latest, if all goes as planned. The U.S. drawdown plan would require the Taliban to observe a cease-fire. Both the withdrawal and the cease-fire, however, will be "limited and conditional."
Sources did not rule out the possibility that President Donald Trump might announce and give details of the final agreement with the Taliban at his State of the Union speech, whenever that is scheduled.
The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been leading the American side in what observers describe as an unprecedented engagement between the two adversaries in the 17-year-old war.
Still work to do
Khalilzad tweeted late Saturday that after six days in Doha, he was headed to Afghanistan for consultations.
"We have a number of issues left to work out. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and 'everything' must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive cease-fire," he said.
Khalilzad described his meetings in Doha as "more productive than they have been in the past" and added that the two sides had made "significant progress on vital issues." He did not elaborate and said the talks would resume shortly.
Late Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a tweet, "Encouraging news from @US4AfghanPeace (Khalilzad). He reports significant progress in talks with the Taliban on #Afghanistan reconciliation."
He added later, "The U.S. is serious about pursuing peace, preventing #Afghanistan from continuing to be a space for international terrorism & bringing forces home. Working with the Afghan gov't & all interested parties, the U.S. seeks to strengthen Afghan sovereignty, independence & prosperity."
Shortly after Khalilzad's tweets, the Taliban issued their own statement, saying the negotiations "revolving around the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and other vital issues saw progress."
"The policy of the Islamic Emirate [the Taliban] during talks was very clear — until the issue of withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan is agreed upon, progress in other issues is impossible," the group noted.
But the issues under consideration are of "critical nature and needed comprehensive discussions," the group said.
The Taliban added that the two sides would share details of the Doha meetings and receive guidance from their "respective leaderships" before they reconvened to discuss "unsolved" matters to find an "appropriate and effective solution." The Taliban statement did not explain further.
Sources told VOA they believed the agreement on a conditional and limited withdrawal and cease-fire would give both sides an opportunity to test the waters "without taking too huge a political risk."
Pakistan takes credit
Officials in Pakistan took full credit for persuading the Taliban to engage in the dialogue at the U.S. request.
"Pakistan's success is that it has sincerely and faithfully diverted the recent positive environment and energy in its relations with the U.S. to the complete benefit of the Afghan peace process, and Afghanistan as a whole," a senior official told VOA as the talks progressed in Doha.
Islamabad insists a peaceful Afghanistan is key to Pakistan's future security and economic stability as well as those of the region in general.
Pakistani officials believe any agreement at this stage will help bridge the trust gap between the U.S. and the Taliban and will "add much needed political capital" to Washington's account to achieve the ultimate goal of peace in Afghanistan. This agreement may prove an important asset in later, more serious stages of negotiations, they said.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's nascent government, which has made resolution of the Afghan conflict its top foreign policy priority, sees continued U.S. involvement in Afghanistan reconstruction as key to the future security and economic stability of the region.
"This political reconciliation must succeed. ... We wish that the U.S. leaves Afghanistan as friend of the region, not as a failure," Pakistan army spokesman Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor stated prior to the Doha talks.
Afghan president's outburst
It is not clear whether the Taliban have agreed to talk directly with President Ashraf Ghani's national unity government in Afghanistan, an administration that critics say remains fragile, is marred with political controversies and suffers from "disunity."
The Taliban have so far refused to engage with the Afghan government in a peace process, dismissing it as an illegitimate entity and an "American puppet."
Speaking during the World Economic Forum this week in Davos, Ghani for the first time publicly criticized the Khalilzad-led peace effort and indicated the Afghan government might not accept any possible outcome of the Doha talks.
Ghani warned that any truce the U.S. signs with the Taliban must pave the way for direct talks between his government and the insurgents to decide all issues, including foreign troop withdrawal.
"There's discussion, but this discussion needs to be shared back. A discussion that does not involve the region, we will not trust," Ghani said when asked whether the talks in Qatar were nearing a breakthrough.
"If we don't get all the pieces right, one piece alone doesn't suffice," he added.
During his interaction, Ghani also revealed that since he took office in late 2014, Afghan security forces have lost more than 45,000 personnel while battling the Taliban. The United Nations continues to document record levels of civilian casualties in its annual reports. Millions of others have been made refugees within Afghanistan, and the warfare discourages many more from returning from refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran.
Aside from the humanitarian consequences of the fighting, it has cost the United States nearly $1 trillion while its military has lost nearly 2,500 personnel. The presence of 14,000 American soldiers means Washington will continue to pay around $45 billion annually to sustain operations if peace talks fail to produce desired results.
An American university research report released late last year noted that the Afghan war had killed about 150,000 people, including government forces, insurgents, U.S. and personnel of the NATO-led coalition. The U.S.-led military invasion stemmed from terrorist attacks on American cities in September 2001 that were plotted by al-Qaida, allegedly out of its bases in Afghanistan.