ISLAMABAD - Delegates of Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban continue finalizing “rules of negotiations” for a power-sharing deal a week after the two foes launched their historic U.S.-brokered direct peace dialogue.
Meanwhile, battlefield hostilities between Afghan forces and Taliban insurgents continued to inflict heavy casualties on both sides and deepen a mutual trust deficit at the negotiating table.
Airstrikes carried out by Afghan forces against Taliban positions in northeastern Kunduz province Saturday reportedly killed at least 12 civilians and injured 10 others. Defense ministry officials said the attack killed more than 40 insurgents and that investigations into reports of civilian casualties were underway.
A Taliban statement said the airstrikes killed 23 civilians, including women and children, and injured 17 others. It was not immediately possible to verify claims made by either side.
The insurgents have rejected calls for a cease-fire until they negotiate a broader political deal over the future of Afghanistan in the dialogue being hosted by Qatar.
The two negotiating teams have held daily meetings but have shared few details about the intra-Afghan dialogue that began September 12 in Doha, the Qatari capital.
In a weekly commentary published Saturday, the Taliban insisted they have, from the outset, called for the establishment of an “Islamic system” of governance in Afghanistan to be a “focal point of discussions."
The radical group asserted it “believes” the Islamic system could only bring peace and solve problems facing Afghanistan, including corruption and other crimes.
The Taliban denounce the existing Afghan ruling system as illegal and a product of what they call America’s occupation of the country.
The Afghan government vehemently defends the political system as "fully Islamic” and has vowed not to compromise on it in the discussions with the insurgent interlocutors.
The peace negotiations in Doha are an outcome of the deal the U.S. signed with the Taliban in February to withdraw about 8,600 American troops remaining in the country by May 2021 and close out America’s longest war.
Trump’s take on Taliban
On Friday, U.S. President Donald Trump described the Taliban as “tough” and “smart," saying his administration was dealing well with the insurgents.
“We’ll be down very shortly over the next couple of weeks to 4,000 — less than 4,000 [service members] in Afghanistan. And then we’ll make that final determination a little bit later on,” Trump told reporters.
“We’re dealing very well with the Taliban. They’re very tough, they’re very smart, they’re very sharp. … So, we’re having some very good discussions with the Taliban, as you probably heard. … And so, we’ll be out of there, knowing that certain things have to happen — certain things have to be fulfilled,” Trump underscored.
A U.S.-led foreign military alliance invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban from power days after the September 11, 2001, terror strikes on the U.S. that al-Qaida leaders orchestrated from their Afghan sanctuaries.
Trump is seeking re-election November 3, and eliminating what he often denounces as America’s “endless war” in Afghanistan has been a key campaign promise.
The Afghan war has cost Washington the lives of more than 2,400 U.S. service members and hundreds of billions of dollars.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this week cautioned that intra-Afghan negotiations would be a “difficult” process, but would help reduce the cost of war for the U.S.
A recent survey by the nonprofit Eurasia Group Foundation found strong public support among Republican and Democratic voters for Trump administration-backed peace talks to end the 19-year-old U.S. war in Afghanistan.
The U.S.-Taliban pact binds the insurgents to disallow international terrorism from Afghan soil and engage in peace talks with rival Afghan factions to end the deadly conflict.