ISLAMABAD - The Taliban says it is hopeful an agreement will be reached with the United States to end the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan when the two adversaries meet later this week in Qatar for a crucial round of peace negotiations.
The two sides have worked hard for nearly one year and almost drafted a text in which “we have addressed all major issues,” Suhail Shaheen, who speaks for the Taliban negotiating team, told VOA.
Taliban negotiators have done their part and it is now up to the American side whether they have "made up their mind” and take the next step of winding up the dialogue process, he asserted.
“We hope to reach an agreement on the troops’ withdrawal,” Shaheen said when asked for his exceptions from the upcoming meeting, though he declined to say when exactly the talks will take place.
U.S chief negotiator Zalamay Khalilzad, who has been in Afghanistan for more than a week, tweeted Wednesday that he is heading to Qatar for talks with the Taliban. "In Doha, if the Taliban do their part, we will do ours and conclude the agreement we have been working on." Khalilzad added that during his stay in Kabul he worked with Afghan leaders to finalize a negotiating team for intra-Afghan talks. Khalilzad said he will stop in neighboring Pakistan before traveling to the Qatari capital.
The draft text outlines a “mutually agreed” timeline for U.S. troops to leave the country in exchange for Taliban guarantees that “Afghan soil, particularly areas under our control” do not become a platform for transnational terrorism, Shaheen said, without sharing specific details.
He said international guarantors, possibly China, Russia, the United Nations, and neighbors of Afghanistan, including Pakistan and Iran, will witness the signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement.
U.S. President Donald Trump has indicated he intends to wind down the longest U.S. foreign military intervention, costing Washington an estimated nearly one trillion dollars and more than 2,400 lives of American military personnel.
On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said President Trump has instructed him to reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan by the 2020 election. “He (Trump) has been unambiguous: End the endless wars. Draw down. Reduce. It won’t just be us,” Pompeo noted in some of the clearest comments on the administration’s plans to terminate the war.
Once the agreement between the United States and the Taliban is inked, it will require the insurgents to immediately enter into negotiations with Afghan stakeholders.
The chief Taliban negotiator, Sher Abbas Stanikzai, earlier this month acknowledged while talking to VOA in Doha that issues such as a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire will be taken up in the intra-Afghan talks.
“We are committed that when the final agreement is signed with the Americans for the withdrawal of their troops and the timetable is given and international guarantors are witnessing the final signature, after that we will go to the inter-Afghan dialogue,” Stanikzai explained to VOA.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government has repeatedly said it would have the lead role in conducting the inter-Afghan talks, prompting the Taliban to quickly deny those assertions.
Khalilzad, however, intervened on Saturday to end the confusion by publicly explaining who would be sitting on the negotiating table when intra-Afghan negotiations begin.
“They will take place between the Taliban and an inclusive and effective national negotiating team consisting of senior government officials, key political party representatives, civil society and women,” the Afghan-born U.S. envoy tweeted.
Khalilzad’s statement was yet another major concession to the Taliban who have consistently refused to engage in direct talks with the Ghani administration, dismissing it as “illegitimate and an American puppet.”
The Afghan-born American reconciliation envoy has been in Kabul over the past week and has held at least four meetings with Ghani and talked to key Afghan opposition leaders as well as civil society leaders in his bid to push them to form a representative team for the much-awaited talks with the Taliban to help end decades of bloodshed in the country.
Pakistan’s role in Afghan peace
Neighboring Pakistan, meanwhile, is increasingly taking the center stage in the Afghan peace process for arranging the U.S.-Taliban dialogue and vowing to intensify its role to help bring the process to the logical conclusion.
Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Washington earlier this month and discussed Afghanistan with President Trump. The Pakistani leader promised to personally meet with Taliban leaders to persuade them to go for a negotiated settlement to the war through Afghan-to-Afghan talks.
On Tuesday, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi welcomed Pompeo’s statement about U.S. military drawdown. He insisted while talking to reporters that Islamabad is moving forward with “honesty and in good faith” to further the Afghan reconciliation process but he dismissed assertions Pakistan alone is responsible for doing so.
“Pakistan is a facilitator. Pakistan is not a guarantor. The onus cannot be on Pakistan alone because it is a shared responsibility. It will be unrealistic for the world to expect that we (Pakistan) have a magic wand and can ensure desired outcomes from this peace process,” Qureshi stressed.
Afghans, however, remain critical of Pakistan’s efforts, alleging the country has sheltered Taliban leaders and helped them sustain insurgent activities on the Afghan side, charges Islamabad rejects.
Pakistan’s ongoing effort to fence its nearly 2,600 kilometer Afghan border, denunciation of continued Taliban violence and promoting a reconciliation process are all aimed at securing peaceful neighborhood, say officials in Islamabad.
“We will cooperate even with the devil for ensuring peace in Afghanistan,” a senior Pakistani security official insisted when asked to respond to allegations Pakistan wants to install a government of its own choice in Kabul like it did in the past by supporting certain Afghan factions.
"Pakistan had coined the phrase, and now continues to urge all sides to faithfully implement the "Afghan-owned, Afghan-led" principle as hopes for peace grow stronger by the day,” observed a senior foreign ministry official with direct knowledge of Pakistan’s role in Afghan peace building efforts.
“Aware of its key role, Pakistan will continue to shoulder its part of the shared responsibility,” he added.
Pakistani officials, however, cautioned in background interviews that their "core interests and serious concerns cannot be overlooked” as such attempts would cast a shadow on this spirt of cooperation.”
Pakistani officials allege rival India’s growing influence in the Afghan security establishment is behind recent terrorist attacks inside Pakistan and want India's role restricted to only reconstruction assistance to the war-torn country. New Delhi rarely comments on the Pakistani allegations while the Afghan government rejects them as baseless.
Sources in Islamabad told VOA senior U.S. State Department diplomat Alice Wells will arrive in Pakistan next week to review Afghan peace efforts in meetings with Pakistani officials.
Wells, the U.S. principal deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of South and Central Asian affairs, is credited with initiating the direct U.S. talks with the Taliban in July 2018. There was no official confirmation available from either side about her upcoming visit, however.
Iran’s possible role to act as a guarantor in the final U.S.-Taliban deal, however, is unclear in the wake of the country’s increased tensions with the United States. Sources tell VOA that Tehran had refused to attend a meeting Beijing hosted in early July of senior Chinese, Russian, American and Pakistani officials to review Afghan peace developments.