Taliban officials said US negotiators have agreed on a draft peace pact setting out the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan within 18 months, potentially ending America’s longest war.
The details of the draft were given by Taliban sources at the end of six days of talks with US special peace envoy, Mr. Zalmay Khalilzad, in Qatar aimed at ending the war, more than 17 years since US-led forces invaded Afghanistan. It stipulates that troops would leave within 18 months of the agreement being signed.
While no joint statement was issued, Mr. Khalilzad tweeted the talks had made 'significant progress' and would resume shortly, adding that he planned to travel to Afghanistan to meet government officials.
'Meetings here (in Qatar) were more productive than they have been in the past. We have made significant progress on vital issues,' he wrote.
'Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and everything must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive ceasefire,' he said. The US Secretary of State,Mr. Mike Pompeo, said on Saturday that he had received 'encouraging news”' from Khalilzad about the talks.
'The US is serious about pursuing peace, preventing #Afghanistan from continuing to be a space for international terrorism and bringing forces home,' Mr. Pompeo tweeted. He did not give a timetable for the potential withdrawal. A Taliban statement issued later also noted progress on troop withdrawal and other issues but said more negotiations and internal consultations were required.
'The policy of the Islamic Emirate during talks was very clear—until the issue of withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan is agreed upon, progress in other issues is impossible,'” said the Taliban spokesman, Mr. Zabihullah Mujahid, using another name the group calls itself.
It was not clear whether the draft described by the Taliban sources was acceptable to both sides or when it could be completed and signed.
According to the sources, the hard-line Islamic group gave assurances that Afghanistan will not be allowed to be used by Al-Qaida and Islamic State militants to attack the US and its allies—a key early demand of Washington.
They said the deal included a ceasefire provision but they had yet to confirm a timeline and would only open talks with Afghan representatives once a truce was implemented.
Up until now, the Taliban has repeatedly rejected the Afghan government’s offer of holding talks, preferring instead to talk directly to the US side, which it regards as its main enemy.
More talks on the draft are expected in February, again in the Qatari capital of Doha, the Taliban sources said They expect their side to be led by new political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the movement’s co-founder and a former military commander who was released from prison in Pakistan last year.
"Talks were more productive than they have been in the past. We made significant progress on vital issues. But nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and ‘everything’ must include an intra-Afghan dialogue." — Zalmay Khalilzad, US special envoy.
"In 18 months, if the foreign forces are withdrawn and ceasefire is implemented, then other aspects of the peace process can be put into action." — A Taliban source.
As hopes rise of a peace deal, what comes next?
Apart from troop withdrawal, the Taliban sources said other clauses in the draft include an agreement over the exchange and release of prisoners, the removal of an international travel ban on several Taliban leaders by Washington and the prospect of an interim Afghan government after the ceasefire is struck.
The US and Taliban representatives have held several rounds of negotiations in recent months, part of a diplomatic push to get the insurgents to agree to peace talks. The latest session ended in Qatar on Saturday after six straight days of negotiations—the longest consecutive sit-down between the two sides to date, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Pakistan—the only countries to recognise the Taliban regime of the late 1990s—have also all participated in the talks, but the Afghan government has complained of being cut out of them.
The United States has some 14,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led mission, known as Resolute Support, as well as a US counterterrorism mission directed at groups such as Islamic State and Al-Qaida. Meanwhile, US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad arrived in Kabul on Sunday to try to secure cooperation from Afghanistan’s President after breakthroughs in peace negotiations.