US, Taliban agree to draft peace framework: Envoy

Comments by Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad have ignited hopes of a breakthrough in the grinding 17-year conflict.

    Recent meetings between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the US special representative and the Taliban have been relatively successful  [AFP]
    Recent meetings between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the US special representative and the Taliban have been relatively successful [AFP]

    The United States and the Taliban have drafted the framework for a deal which could pave the way for peace talks with the Afghanistan government, Washington's main negotiator was quoted as saying.

    However, major hurdles, including a ceasefire and a withdrawal of foreign forces, remain.

    The comments by Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to the New York Times published on Monday are the clearest signal yet from a US official that talks between Washington and the Taliban are progressing, igniting hopes of a breakthrough in the grinding 17-year conflict.

    Khalilzad has been leading a months-long diplomatic push to convince the Taliban to negotiate with the government of Afghanistan, but the group has steadfastly refused, dismissing authorities in Kabul as "puppets".

    The flurry of activity culminated in an unprecedented six consecutive days of talks in Qatar last week, with both the US and the Taliban citing progress.

    "We have a draft of the framework that has to be fleshed out before it becomes an agreement," Khalilzad, who arrived in Kabul on Sunday to update Afghan authorities on the talks, was quoted as saying by the Times.

    He told Afghan media that Washington and the Taliban "agreed to agreements in principle on a couple of very important issues", and said Afghans must "seize the opportunity", according to comments released by the US embassy in Kabul.

    Experts quickly hailed the development as a milestone, noting it indicated a willingness on both sides to find a way out of the conflict. 

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    Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan described the talks as "encouraging".

    However, there is still no accord on a timetable for a US withdrawal or a ceasefire - major issues on which previous attempts at negotiations have foundered.

    On Saturday, Taliban Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that without a withdrawal timetable, progress on other issues is "impossible".

    'Good faith'

    Khalilzad confirmed the Taliban acceded on one major issue for the US: safe havens.

    "The Taliban have committed, to our satisfaction, to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals," he said.

    He gave no further details, but the statement gave weight to reports last week that the Taliban had agreed to oppose al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in Afghanistan. 

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    ISIL, however, is a growing and potent presence in Afghanistan, where it is fighting a fierce turf war with the Taliban in some areas.

    Analyst Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center in Washington, DC said such a move had long been a major ask of the US, but noted it was more of a "conciliatory gesture" than a concession.

    "The Taliban have never been a friend of ISIL, and al-Qaeda has become a shadow of its former self," he told AFP news agency.

    Even so "it signals, at least at this point, that the insurgents are willing to negotiate in good faith and agree to a key US demand".

    'Clear, hard assurances'

    Afghan authorities have warned that any deal between the US and the Taliban would require Kabul's endorsement.

    "I call on the Taliban to ... show their Afghan will, and accept Afghans' demand for peace, and enter serious talks with the Afghan government," President Ashraf Ghani said in a televised address Monday.

    US President Donald Trump's clear eagerness to end the US's longest war has also weighed heavy on the discussions, and Ghani warned against rushing into a deal, citing violence following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

    "We want peace, we want it fast but we want it with a plan," he said. 

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    Ghani also said all foreign forces will eventually leave the war-torn country, adding that safety was key for Afghans.

    "No Afghan wants foreign troops to remain in their country indefinitely. No Afghan wants to face suicide attacks in hospitals, schools, the mosques, and parks," Ghani said.

    Civilians continue to pay a terrible price for the Taliban rebellion, with some estimates showing the Afghan conflict overtook Syria to become the world's deadliest last year.

    Ghani's office said Khalilzad had reassured the government that the negotiations in Qatar remain focused on bringing the rebels to the table for talks with Kabul.

    The palace said Khalilzad confirmed no agreement had been made on a possible withdrawal or a ceasefire.

    NATO combat troops left Afghanistan in 2014, but thousands remain in training, support and counterterrorism roles. Trump has said he wants to pull out half the remaining 14,000 American troops, according to US officials. 

    The Taliban and US officials have agreed to continue negotiations, though no date has been publicly announced.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies