ISLAMABAD - American and Taliban officials have indicated their months-long peace dialogue remains on track, despite the intensification of hostilities in Afghanistan that came with the start of the insurgent group's spring offensive.
U.S.-backed Afghan security forces and insurgents have both claimed they have inflicted heavy casualties on each other since Friday when the Taliban announced its annual spring offensive, which marks an increase in fighting, now in its 18th year.
The insurgent offensive promptly drew strong condemnation from Zalmay Khalilzad, who is leading the American team of negotiators discussing a possible peace deal with the Taliban. He denounced the offensive as "reckless."
In turn, the Taliban slammed Khalilzad's remarks and justified the offensive, citing the continued U.S. "occupation" of Afghanistan. The war of words raised questions about the fate of the ongoing U.S.-Taliban talks.
But on Monday, both sides signaled they plan to move the process forward and expected to resume discussions in Qatar before the end of April.
Khalilzad noted in a series of tweets that in discussions with Taliban interlocutors he had proposed ways to reduce the violence, and lamented that years of hostilities have killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians.
"The quickest way to prevent casualties is to agree to a ceasefire. Taliban senior leadership should allow their representatives to come to the table and discuss. I will continue to press the case," said Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation.
The Afghan-born American diplomat said the Afghan people deserve and want a comprehensive ceasefire and negotiations leading to a lasting peace in the country.
Taliban committed to talks
A senior Taliban official told VOA his group is committed to the ongoing dialogue process with Washington, saying Khalilzad's latest remarks indicate the other side is also willing to remain engaged.
"So the dialogue possibly will take place after the intra-Afghan dialogue. But the date is not fixed yet," said the insurgent official. He spoke on condition of anonymity.
The intra-Afghan dialogue the Taliban official referred to is a two-day informal meeting scheduled for Friday (April 19 ) in the Qatari capital of Doha, where politicians, tribal elders along with representatives of civil society, women and youth from the war-ravaged country will interact in their "personal capacity" with Taliban delegates on the current crisis facing Afghanistan. Envoys of the Kabul government are also expected to be part of the discussions but not in their official capacity.
The U.S.-Taliban talks in Qatar have primarily focused on two issues: Washington agreement to a timetable for withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan in return for the Taliban preventing Transnational terrorist groups from again using Afghan soil as a sanctuary. Both sides announced after their last round of talks in early March they have drafted a preliminary agreement covering the two points.
Washington-based analyst, Michael Kugelman, says he is unsure whether U.S. determination to push for a ceasefire will produce desired results.
"The problem is that the Taliban, which enjoys ample leverage, is unlikely to take any interest in one until the two sides reach an understanding on a troop withdrawal plan," tweeted Kugelman, who is the deputy director of the Asia program and South Asia senior associate at the Wilson Center.
Last week, the U.N. Security Council removed travel and financial restrictions on the 15 Qatar-based Taliban leaders holding peace talks with the U.S. team to allow the insurgent team to be able to travel to other countries to participate in Afghan peace-related consultations. Taliban officials acknowledge the U.S had played a role in seeking a nine-month suspension of the sanctions.
Khalilzad, however, has made it clear that a final agreement will be linked to a comprehensive Taliban ceasefire and a sustainable intra-Afghan peace process to bring an end to years of bloodshed.
The Taliban is opposed to entering into formal Afghan negotiations until after the U.S. agrees and announces a troop withdrawal plan.
Khalilzad has also indirectly criticized Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for taking months to appoint a negotiating team inclusive of all segments of the Afghan society for an eventual Afghan-only peace negotiations.
Ghani has reportedly attempted to remain in charge of any peace deal with the Taliban. But internal political rivalries as well as divisions have apparently prevented his government from coming up with an authoritative Afghan team of negotiators.
In the past few days, the Afghan leader has tried to assemble an inclusive negotiation team but the effort quickly has suffered setbacks. Afghan chief executive Abdullah Abdullah withdrew from the process, saying he was not consulted beforehand while key opposition leaders also have rejected it.
President Donald Trump has said he wants to pull out American troops in Afghanistan but linked the move to progress in talks with the Taliban.
A visiting Democratic lawmaker Monday reassured Afghans the United States does not want to pursue a "precipitous" troop withdrawal from the country.
"What we've heard here [is] that whatever negotiated settlement ends the conflict, that it be done in a way that's very deliberate, that ensures a transition that all sides can participate in, and that there should not be a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan," Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen told reporters at the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
Shaheen also stressed that women must have a place at the table as the U.S. tries to negotiate with the Taliban.