U.S. President Donald Trump met Friday with his national security team to discuss the U.S. negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, the White House said.
The meeting came amid media reports that both sides were close to striking a deal that would decide the fate of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after almost 19 years of conflict in the country.
"The meeting went very well, and negotiations are proceeding," the White House said in a statement following the meeting, which was led by the president, who is on a working vacation at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey.
Following the meeting, Trump said the U.S. was looking for a deal with the Taliban "if possible."
Just completed a very good meeting on Afghanistan. Many on the opposite side of this 19 year war, and us, are looking to make a deal - if possible!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 16, 2019
A statement issued Friday evening by the U.S. State Department said the president discussed the "status of negotiations for peace" and "the path forward in Afghanistan."
Those who met with the president included Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, national security adviser John Bolton, Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford and CIA Director Gina Haspel.
"In continued close cooperation with the government of Afghanistan, we remain committed to achieving a comprehensive peace agreement, including a reduction in violence and a cease-fire, ensuring that Afghan soil is never again used to threaten the United States or her allies, and bringing Afghans together to work towards peace," the statement said.
A senior administration official told Reuters that no big decision was expected to come out of the president's meeting with his national security team, but that the "president wanted to bring U.S. troops home."
There seems to have been no change in the Taliban's staunch position against holding direct talks with the Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani, which the Taliban calls a U.S. puppet government.
U.S. officials have been insisting, though, that any agreement with the insurgent group would be tied to the start of intra-Afghan talks.
Despite assurances by the U.S., the Afghan government has expressed deep concern about being left out of the direct talks between the U.S. and Taliban. The latest round of talks concluded Monday in Qatar's capital, Doha, where the U.S. delegation and members of the Taliban negotiating team held discussions for nine days to try to iron out differences.
Ghani said Sunday, during a speech on the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, that a decision this monumental couldn’t be left to an outsider.
"Our fate cannot be decided outside of Afghanistan, not in the countries of our allies, nor in the capitals of our neighbors," Ghani said in an apparent reference to the direct U.S. talks with the Taliban.
"Our fate would be decided inside this land. We do not want anyone to interfere in our internal affairs," the Afghan president added.
Ghani and his government are adamant about holding the country's presidential elections, which are due in late September, and in which Ghani seeks another five-year term in office.
Amrullah Saleh, Ghani's running mate and former head of the country's spy agency, said on Twitter earlier this month that only a legitimate government elected by the people could negotiate with the Taliban, and that therefore elections must be held.
"Elections will take place. Allow no poisonous propaganda to disturb your patriotism. The link between elections and the peace process is very direct and crucial. No one without a mandate from the people can negotiate settlement," Saleh said.
The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the election by attacking polling centers and campaign rallies. The insurgent group last week warned people not to participate in the elections.
A day after the warning, a Taliban car bomb targeting Afghan security forces killed 14 people and wounded more than 140, mostly children, women and other civilians.
Although both the Taliban and the U.S. are citing progress in their direct talks, a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity told Reuters that "significant differences remained" between the two sides following the end of the eighth round of talks in Doha this week.
The officials said the differences center on U.S. demands that the insurgents publicly denounce ties to al-Qaida and other terror groups and agree to a nationwide cease-fire.
Some in the U.S. Congress are concerned that terror groups including al-Qaida and the Islamic State may find fertile ground inside Afghanistan and pose a threat to the U.S. and its allies if the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and an ally of Trump, tweeted Friday following the president's meeting with the national security team.
Must have robust counterterrorism force with intel capability no matter what Taliban demands in order to protect the USA.— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) August 16, 2019
"Share President Trump's ‘hope’ that we can honorably end the war in Afghanistan with the Taliban. Certain that al-Qaida, ISIS, and other radical Islamic groups are not interested in the war ending," Graham added.
Graham insists the U.S. should maintain a counterterrorism force inside Afghanistan, even if a deal is reached with the Taliban.
The U.S. has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan engaged in both train-and-advise missions, as part of the U.S.-led NATO Resolute Support Mission, and in counterterrorism missions against the Islamic State and al-Qaida terror groups.
About 8,000 troops from NATO allies and partners also are stationed in the country, training and supporting the Afghan security forces.
Some of information for this report came from Reuters and The Associated Press.