ISLAMABAD - The United States and the Taliban took a one-day break Friday from a marathon 11 days of talks in Qatar aimed at finalizing a deal for ending Afghanistan's 18-year war. A top U.S. military official, however, spoke of "some obstacles" that negotiators were trying to overcome.
The latest discussions, taking place in Doha, Qatar, began Feb. 25. In a formal announcement about the pause in negotiations, a Taliban statement said the dialogue would resume Saturday.
U.S. and insurgent officials have said recently that the talks "are proceeding in a positive direction," but they issued conflicting statements about the agenda.
Foreigners' exit, Taliban pledges
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement Friday that their representatives in the "comprehensive discussions" with U.S. negotiators have focused only on the withdrawal of "all [foreign] occupying forces" from Afghanistan in return for the Taliban's pledges to prevent the country from being used as a hub for terrorism.
At a news conference in Washington this week, a State Department spokesman, Robert Palladino, suggested the Doha meetings also have involved a possible Taliban cease-fire and the group's engagement in intra-Afghan talks.
The insurgents refuse to talk with the government in Kabul until they flesh out details with the U.S. on troop withdrawal and counterterrorism issues. The Taliban also are reluctant to discuss a cease-fire at this stage of talks, fearing that doing so could spark internal rifts and undermine insurgents' battlefield activities.
"As some individuals and circles are trying to connect other topics to these discussions, they are either unaware or are pursuing an agenda. No one should pay any heed to the rumors of these self-interested circles," Mujahid said in his statement, although he did not directly refer to the remarks by the State Department spokesman.
U.S. troops seen as vital
On Thursday, a top U.S. army general cautioned during a House Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington that the current status of negotiations with the Taliban doesn't merit a U.S. troop withdrawal because Afghan security forces remain dependent on coalition support to fight insurgents.
"We are very early in the process of this [dialogue]. There have been no agreements from either side. We have not given anything up, and they [the Taliban] have not given anything up," noted Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command.
When a congresswoman asked Votel whether the Taliban have said during talks that they would abide by the Afghan constitution, renounce violence and abandon their alliance with al-Qaida, the general replied, "Well, they haven't made any of those statements."
Votel said the discussions that Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, has been having with the Taliban are "really focused on developing a framework that can lead to inter-Afghan discussions, and this involves overcoming some obstacles that right now are preventing the Taliban from talking to the government of Afghanistan."
He did not elaborate and said such issues as the rights of Afghan women and their participation in peace negotiations would be addressed when intra-Afghan talks commence following a U.S. deal with the Taliban.
During the hearing, lawmakers noted that in their recent interactions with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, he made it clear to them he didn't respect the validity of the talks because his democratically elected government had been excluded.
Consulting with president
"It is my observation from my close discussions with [Khalilzad] that he is in fact consulting with President Ghani on a regular basis and keeping him well-informed and the actual initiation of these discussions was done with President Ghani's knowledge and support," Votel replied.
Analysts say that Taliban battlefield victories and major attacks against Afghan forces have encouraged the insurgents to try to keep the upper hand in the talks with the U.S.
Critics say President Donald Trump's stated intention to draw down American forces as early as possible, coupled with legislation recently introduced in the U.S. Senate seeking termination of the long-running war, could have emboldened the Taliban to toughen their stance in peace talks.