ISLAMABAD – 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 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 on condition they not be identified because they are not authorized to speak to the media, say they will not 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 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.
In a related incident, at least 25 pro-government militias were killed in a Taliban attack in northern Afghanistan on Saturday, officials said.
The attack happened in Nahrin district of northern Baghlan province before dawn when the militia members attempted to rescue a group of soldiers surrounded by Taliban militants, Defense Ministry spokesman Fawad Aman said.
“As they were going to help the soldiers, they got ambushed. Unfortunately, 25 members … were killed in the attack,” he said.
District Gov. Fazaluddin Muradi confirmed the toll, adding that the attack lasted nearly six hours.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5