US peace envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad met with co-founder of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, as the two sides gathered in the Qatari capital on Wednesday to hammer out a peace deal.
“Full withdrawal of foreign forces” and “preventing Afghanistan from harming others” were to be the two key agenda points, said Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, in an email statement.
American and Taliban officials resumed their sixth round of talks in Doha to end the 17-year conflict while the Afghan government hosted a rare assembly in Kabul to ensure its interests are upheld in any peace deal.
“There will be no other side except the US and Taliban representatives in the meeting, but some Qatari officials will remain present as hosts,” said the spokesman for the armed group that has waged a bloody rebellion since it was ousted from power by a US-led coalition in 2001.
Mullah Baradar was released from a Pakistani prison last October to head the Taliban team in Doha. Qatar hosts the Taliban’s political office at the request of the US.
The fifth round of peace talks, which continued for 11 days between February and March, ended without any breakthrough.
In previous rounds of talks, the two sides agreed on a “draft framework” that included a withdrawal of US troops and discussions of a Taliban commitment that the Afghan territory would not be used by international “terror” groups.
Currently, 14,000 US troops are stationed in the country.
None of the talks, which began in July last year, have so far included the Afghan government, which the Taliban views as a puppet regime.
That means that even if the US and the Taliban can agree on a deal to end the 17-year-old war and a timetable for an eventual troop withdrawal, the rebels must still forge some kind of accord with Afghan politicians and tribal elders before an enduring ceasefire could kick in.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who is seeking a second term, appears to have been sidelined from the peace process ahead of key July presidential elections.
This week, the Afghan president convened a rare grand assembly known as a loya jirga to set out Kabul’s conditions for peace talks with the Taliban.
The jirga has a purely consultative function, but it carries significance in Afghan politics and society.
The Doha meetings mark the highest level of negotiations between the two sides since the US ramped up peace efforts last year as the Trump administration is eager to end the war.
Last week, Khalilzad went to Moscow, where Russia and China voiced support for the US plan for a peace deal and stressed the need for an “intra-Afghan dialogue” that would see all sides in Afghanistan at a negotiating table.
The US forces overthrew the Taliban from power in an October 2001 invasion for hosting al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, blamed for the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US.
The Taliban has since conducted an armed rebellion exacting a heavy toll on Afghan security forces, civilians and US-led NATO forces, with 3,804 civilians killed last year – the deadliest toll since 2001.
The UN says at least 32,000 civilians have been killed and another 60,000 wounded in the past decade when it began compiling the data.
In January, the Afghan president said some 45,000 security forces have been killed since 2014.
As the talks continue, the US military has stopped tracking the amount of territory controlled or influenced by the Afghan government and rebels, a US watchdog said on Tuesday.