FILE - Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad speaks on the prospects for peace, Feb. 8, 2019, at the US Institute of Peace, in Washington.
FILE - Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad speaks on the prospects for peace, Feb. 8, 2019, at the U.S. Institute of Peace, in Washington.

DOHA - The chief American peace negotiator Saturday hailed the ongoing round of talks with the Taliban in Qatar as “the most productive session” so far toward finding a political settlement to the war in Afghanistan.

The U.S.-Taliban negotiations began on June 29, the seventh round in the nearly yearlong direct dialogue between the two adversaries in the nearly 18-year-old war that has turned deadlier in recent months.

Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted that both sides decided Saturday to take a break from the dialogue to allow for a two-day intra-Afghan conference to be held in the Qatari capital of Doha on Sunday.

“The last six days of talks have been the most productive session to date. We made substantive progress on all four parts of a peace agreement,” noted Khalilzad.

Areas of concentration

The Afghan-born U.S. diplomat went on to emphasize that discussions have focused exclusively on counterterrorism assurances from the Taliban, a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S.-led foreign troops from the country, participation of the insurgent group in an intra-Afghan dialogue, and a comprehensive permanent cease-fire.

“There is still important work left to be done before we have an agreement. We will resume on the 9th [of July] after the [intra-Afghan] dialogue,” Khalilzad said.

Suhail Shaheen, who speaks for the Taliban's negotiating team, is pictured in an interview with VOA, July 6, 2019.

Suhail Shaheen, who speaks for the Taliban’s negotiating team, told VOA that a brief session of talks with American interlocutors was held on Saturday before the two sides agreed to pause the process in support of the upcoming intra-Afghan conference. He also acknowledged the latest discussions have made “spectacular progress.”

But Shaheen, who is based in Doha, rejected Khalilzad’s assertions that the two sides have discussed a Taliban cease-fire and the rebel group's participation in intra-Afghan peace negotiations. He insisted these two issues are related to an “internal dimension” of the Afghan war and the Taliban will discuss them in Afghan-to-Afghan talks only after the U.S. announces a foreign troop withdrawal timetable.

Just two points

“With the U.S. we had agreed that we would talk on two points, which are most important for them and for us. For them, the soil of Afghanistan should not be used against them [U.S.] and their allies, and for us [the Taliban], the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. We are talking on [these two issues] them,” Shaheen maintained while speaking to VOA.

Shaheen dismissed suggestions Sunday’s intra-Afghan conference is part of intra-Afghan negotiations for peace. He said participants in the event will be attending in their personal capacity and none of them will represent the Afghan government.

FILE - Backdropped by his own image, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks to delegates during the first day of the Afghan Loya Jirga meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 29, 2019.

The Taliban are vehemently opposed to engaging in any negotiations with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s administration, rejecting it as illegitimate and an American “puppet” with no decision-making power. The insurgent group defends its dialogue with the U.S., saying American troops — and not Afghans — are controlling the country's ground and airspace.

It is mostly representatives of opposition groups, civil society and women activists who are part of the delegation from Kabul that will exchange views with Taliban envoys in the two-day conference starting Sunday.

Germany arranged the conference in coordination with the Qatari government to provide further impetus to the U.S.-initiated Afghan peace process. The organizers also have made it clear that Afghan delegates will be attending Sunday’s meeting in a private capacity.

Meanwhile, battlefield hostilities recently have escalated in Afghanistan. The Taliban have conducted major attacks against Afghan security forces, killing more than 200 of them over the past week and capturing new territory.