ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - A fresh round of talks between the U.S. and the Taliban began in Qatar on Saturday, just days after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington is hoping for an Afghan peace agreement before Sept. 1.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed to The Associated Press that negotiations had begun. Originally scheduled to begin in the morning, the two sides sat down mid-afternoon for the seventh time in a series of direct talks that began last year following the appointment of U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.
As in previous talks between Khalilzad and the Taliban, the focus will be on the withdrawal of U.S. troops and Taliban guarantees to prevent Afghanistan from again hosting militants who can stage global attacks.
Both sides say they have come to an understanding on the withdrawal and the guarantees but the details have yet to be worked out.
Both Khalilzad and Pompeo have said that agreements with the Taliban will come hand in hand with agreements on an intra-Afghan dialogue and a permanent cease fire.
Until now, the Taliban have refused to meet directly with President Ashraf Ghani’s government but have held several rounds of talks with a collection of Afghan personalities from Kabul, including former President Hamid Karzai, several prominent opposition leaders and government peace council members. Both those meetings were held in Moscow earlier this year. The Taliban say they will meet with government officials but as ordinary Afghans and not representatives of the government – at least not until an agreement with the U.S. is finalized, saying the U.S. is the final arbiter on the Taliban’s biggest issue of troop withdrawal.
The Taliban have also refused a cease-fire. Taliban officials who have spoken to the AP on condition they not be identified because they are not authorized to speak to the media, say they won’t agree to a cease-fire until troop withdrawal is in place because returning Taliban to the battlefield with the same momentum of today if the U.S. reneges on its promises could be difficult.
Khalilzad has been in the region for several weeks meeting a legion of regional and Afghan officials, including Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Khalilzad has been relentless in his pursuit of an intra-Afghan dialogue after an earlier planned meeting between the government and the Taliban in Doha was scuttled when both sides disagreed on participants.
Still the latest round of talks comes amid heightened expectations that followed Pompeo’s optimistic time frame for a pact to end Afghanistan’s nearly 18-year war and America’s longest-running military engagement.