The United States and the Taliban are scheduled to hold a crucial round of negotiations in Qatar early this week amid high expectations of a breakthrough in nearly a year-long process toward ending the war in Afghanistan.
This would be the seventh round of talks hosted by the Qatari capital of Doha, where the insurgent group maintains an informal political office. The U.S. team is being led by Afghan-born American reconciliation envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.
The dialogue, which excludes the Afghan government, has focused on the withdrawal of American forces from the country in exchange for Taliban assurances that transnational terrorists would be not be allowed to use Afghan soil for attacks against other countries.
U.S. and Taliban negotiators were expected to conclude an agreement covering the two issues in their last meeting in May, but the discussions stalled over the Taliban's refusal to cease hostilities and participate in an intra-Afghan peace dialogue until Washington announced a troop drawdown timetable.
ISLAMABAD - Gradual progress seen
A Taliban spokesman has dismissed reported assertions of a stalemate in the dialogue in the wake of U.S. insistence that the final agreement must cover a cease-fire and the insurgent group's engagement in intra-Afghan talks, involving the Kabul government.
"I don't see the dialogue is deadlocked. It is progressing, but steadily or gradually," Suhail Shaheen, who speaks for the insurgent negotiating team, told VOA ahead of the upcoming talks.
"I hope with the announcement of a timetable for withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, the process may gain momentum, paving the way for the Afghans to sit together and chart a road map for a future Islamic system and government," Shaheen said.
Khalilzad, in a statement ahead of the upcoming meeting with the Taliban, also vowed he would "try to bring the first two parts of our peace framework to closure," but he emphasized success would require other parties to show flexibility.
"We hope Khalilzad will deliver what he has promised — that he would try to bring to closure the framework for peace on these two issues," Shaheen said when asked to respond to comments by the chief American negotiator.
Official sources in Kabul, meanwhile, have told VOA a two-day peace dialogue among Afghans, including government and Taliban representatives, is being arranged in Doha early next month. The sources said the meeting was scheduled for July 7 and would be an outcome of the upcoming U.S.-Taliban negotiations.
The Taliban are opposed to any direct talks with Afghan government officials, dismissing them as American "puppets." But the insurgent group, Taliban officials said, is not averse to a peace dialogue with a delegation representing all sections of the Afghan society, including government officials in their individual capacity.
While Washington has engaged in direct talks with the Taliban, a top American military commander noted this week that strongholds of the Islamic State group in eastern Afghan provinces "are very worrisome to us."
Strong pressure seen
However, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said earlier this week that IS was under strong military pressure in Afghanistan.
American forces and their Afghan partners routinely attack IS bases in the country while Taliban insurgents also regularly clash with loyalists of the Middle Eastern-based terrorist group.
"ISIS in Afghanistan certainly has aspirations to attack the United States. … It is our clear judgment that as long as we maintain pressure on them, it will be hard for them to do that," McKenzie, using an acronym for Islamic State, told reporters in Germany.
But the Taliban swiftly rejected McKenzie's assertions as baseless and alleged they were aimed at justifying the U.S. military presence in the country.
"Their occupation is practically providing Daesh a ground in Afghanistan, and they are using its name and existence as an instrument," alleged Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, using the local name for IS.
Mujahid claimed the Taliban had cleared many Afghan areas of IS, and he accused American forces as well as their local partners of launching aerial strikes against Taliban positions in areas where the insurgents are battling IS militants.
"If American generals really fear from Daesh, then why are they avoiding its elimination and creating hurdles against mujahedeen operations? Statements of American generals are opposite of their actions," Mujahid said.
American military officials, for their part, have reportedly insisted the Taliban has not done enough to fight IS, particularly in eastern Afghan provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar, where the terrorist group has set up bases.
"But not only are the Taliban mostly avoiding fighting the Islamic State, they are also feeding its ranks. Taliban insurgents serve as one of the Islamic State’s primary recruiting pools, and they often bring a wealth of combat experience with them," the officials told The New York Times.
U.S. interlocutors in continuing direct talks with Taliban envoys in Qatar have proposed to leave behind a counterterrorism force in Afghanistan after any peace agreement to fight IS.
Taliban negotiators, however, have rejected the proposal, insisting their fighters could handle and defeat the Islamic State loyalists, according the Times.