US, Taliban scramble to rewrite draft on troop withdrawal

The talks are taking place before a peace conference on Afghanistan in Doha, Qatar on Sunday.

    There are around 14,000 US troops still in Afghanistan, according to a senior US official [File: Massoud Hossaini/AP Photo]
    There are around 14,000 US troops still in Afghanistan, according to a senior US official [File: Massoud Hossaini/AP Photo]

    Negotiators from the Taliban and United States are scrambling to rewrite a draft agreement that will outline the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan as well as working on a verifiable Taliban guarantee to fight "terrorism" in advance of Sunday's all-Afghan peace conference.

    Officials familiar with the talks - but not authorised to talk about them - told The Associated Press that negotiations stretched late into the night on Wednesday and were set to resume again on Thursday, the sixth day of direct talks in between the Taliban and US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in the Qatari capital, Doha. 

    Suhail Shaheen, a spokesperson for the Taliban's political office in Qatar, told The Associated Press earlier that a draft agreement was being rewritten to include agreed-upon clauses. The two sides apparently remain divided on the withdrawal timetable, with the US reportedly seeking more time.

    Taliban officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the US was seeking up to 18 months to complete a troop withdrawal even as US President Donald Trump told Fox News earlier this week that a withdrawal had already begun and that troop strength had been cut to 9,000. 

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    Trump's statement has since been contradicted by a senior US official, who said the force strength is unchanged at about 14,000.

    Trump's statements reinforced the president's often-stated desire to leave Afghanistan and end the US's 18-year involvement in the war- the longest in its history.

    Trump's eagerness to pull out has apparently strengthened the position of the Taliban, who effectively control half of Afghanistan and won a key concession in the planning of the upcoming peace gathering, which will include no official delegation from the Afghan government.

    No comment from Ghani on talks

    Germany and Qatar are co-sponsoring Sunday's dialogue and issuing the invitations.

    They said participants will attend "only in their personal capacity", a condition Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has strenuously opposed and has yet to comment on the scheduled meeting.

    The Taliban have refused to talk to Ghani's government, calling it a US puppet, but have said government officials can attend the conference as private citizens. 

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    In a tweet on Wednesday, Taliban spokesperson Shaheen said 60 people will attend the gathering, which Khalilzad called an "essential element" in achieving a peace agreement in Afghanistan.

    Atta-ul-Rahman Salim, deputy head of a government-appointed peace council, said the delegation from Kabul will include a cross-section of Afghanistan's civil society, including women's rights activists. 

    "It is a good first step to hear each other's side," he said.

    Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who attended two previous meetings with the Taliban in Moscow, told The Associated Press he would not be attending the Doha gathering because he will be in China.

    But, he added, "I fully support the coming intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha and am in the picture".

    SOURCE: AP news agency