US, Taleban to open Doha talks in fresh bid to end war

ISLAMABAD (AP) — A fresh round of talks between the United States (US) and the Taleban is to begin in Qatar yesterday, just days after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington is hoping for an Afghan peace agreement before September 1.

Spokesman for the Taleban’s political office in Doha Suhail Shaheen told The Associated Press that the Taleban’s negotiating team was set to open talks with US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.

He 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 Taleban in Doha was scuttled when both sides disagreed on participants.

As in previous rounds of talks between Khalilzad and the Taleban, the focus will be on the withdrawal of US troops and Taleban guarantees to prevent Afghanistan from again hosting militants who can stage global attacks.

ABOVE & BELOW: Spokesman for the Taleban’s political office in Doha Suhail Shaheen and Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad. – PHOTOS: AP

Still, both Khalilzad and Pompeo have said that agreements with the Taleban will come hand in hand with agreements on an intra-Afghan dialogue and a permanent cease fire.

Until now the Taleban have refused to meet directly with 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 Taleban 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 US is finalised, saying the US is the final arbiter on the Taleban’s biggest issue of troop withdrawal.

The Taleban have also refused a cease-fire. Taleban officials who have spoken to the AP on condition they not be identified because they are not authorised to speak to the media, say they will not agree to a cease-fire until troop withdrawal is in place because returning Taleban to the battlefield with the same momentum of today if the US reneges on its promises could be difficult.

After nearly 18 years and billions of dollars in the protracted war that began in 2001 to unseat the Taleban and hunt down al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his followers who carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US, the Taleban control or contest roughly half of Afghan territory.

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.