The eighth round of negotiations between the United States and the Taliban ended on Monday in the Qatari capital, Doha, with the group indicating that a peace agreement will be finalised and an announcement made in the coming weeks.
Following the conclusion of the talks that began on August 4, both sides said they would consult their respective leaderships on the next steps.
Since last year, the two sides have held discussions over a potential agreement that is focused on four key issues: a Taliban guarantee that it will not allow foreign armed groups and fighters to use Afghanistan as a launchpad to conduct attacks outside the country; the complete withdrawal of US and NATO forces; an intra-Afghan dialogue; and a permanent ceasefire.
A Taliban representative in Doha who is part of the negotiating team told Al Jazeera on Tuesday that a peace agreement was “near”, without providing further details.
“This round of talks has been very productive and we are near to an agreement that will be finalised and hopefully announced in the next coming weeks,” he said.
The Taliban, who was overthrown in 2001 by a US-led military coalition for sheltering al-Qaeda, the group blamed for the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US, has long demanded a complete withdrawal of foreign troops in order to “end the occupation” in Afghanistan.
About 14,000 US troops and around 17,000 troops from 39 NATO allies and partner countries are in Afghanistan in a non-combative role.
Following the end of the eight round of negotiations, the US special representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, announced that the talks focused on the technical details of the agreement.
“They were productive. I am on my way back to DC to consult on next steps,” he said in a Twitter post.
Analysts say peace has never been closer in Afghanistan since the talks between the US and the Taliban began in 2018.
Khalilzad, an Afghan-US diplomat who served as US ambassador to the United Nations (2007-2009), Iraq (2005-2007) and Afghanistan (2003-2005), is representing Washington in the Doha talks.
The Taliban is represented by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the chief of the group’s political office in Doha, and cofounder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was released in October last year from a Pakistani prison.
The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan has been a sticking point in the meetings between the two sides in Doha.
The Taliban insists it will not commit to anything until the US announces a withdrawal timeline and wants the troops out of the country within months.
“The main part of the discussion is the withdrawal timeline and the technicalities of it,” the Taliban representative told Al Jazeera on Tuesday.
In June, during the seventh rounds of talks, both sides said there was an understanding on the withdrawal but the details, including a timeline, had not been worked out yet.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a trip to Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, in June that the US was close to wrapping up the draft agreement with the Taliban on counterterrorism. He hoped a peace agreement could be reached by September 1.
Despite the ongoing talks, the Taliban has continued to stage attacks that mainly target Afghan forces and government officials but have also resulted in civilian casualties.
After the sixth round of talks in May, Khalilzad referred to the two sides’ slow but steady progress, while signalling a growing frustration with the fatal attacks in the country.
“The current pace of talks isn’t sufficient when so much conflict rages and innocent people die. We need more and faster progress. Our proposal for all sides to reduce violence also remains on the table,” he said.
Raising hopes, Khalilzad tweeted on Sunday on the occasion of the Islamic celebration Eid Al–Adha: “I hope this is the last Eid where #Afghanistan is at war.
“I know Afghans yearn for peace. We stand with them and are working hard toward a lasting & honorable peace agreement and a sovereign Afghanistan which poses no threat to any other country.”
The Taliban’s message on the occasion expressed the hope that future celebrations would unfold “without occupation, under an environment of permanent peace and unity”.
The Taliban has long refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, which has repeatedly invited the group for talks with no success.
Washington initially tried to get the Taliban to agree to talking with Kabul, too. But when the Taliban refused to do so, the US was left with no option but to enter into talks with it.
The Taliban has given several reasons on why it is not willing to talk to the Afghan government.
Since the Taliban was overthrown in 2001, the group maintains that the country has been occupied by foreign forces.
It says the Kabul government has no real power and considers it a “puppet regime”. The group says any engagement with the government would grant it legitimacy.
In July, however, dozens of high-profile Afghan politicians and civil society activists, including women, met the Taliban in Doha for a two-day intra-Afghan dialogue.
These talks, sponsored by Qatar and Germany, ended with a call by both sides to reduce civilian casualties to “zero”.
Dawood Azami, an academic and journalist who works as a multimedia editor at BBC World Service in London, said the lack of consensus in Kabul and the failure of the Afghan government to agree on the appointment of an inclusive team to negotiate with the Taliban would prove a major challenge and could result in a breakdown.
“I think the next phase of talks among the Afghans [generally termed as intra-Afghan dialogue] will prove more challenging than the first [US-Taliban talks]”.
Peter Galbraith, a former US diplomat and ex-United Nations deputy special representative for Afghanistan, said if any peace deal was to happen, there would be several hurdles before it was implemented, which he felt was a sign of its possible collapse.
“The deal-breakers are the possibility of exceptionally violent and gruesome Taliban attacks; the refusal of Afghan government to go along; a refusal of the Tajiks and Hazaras to accept a deal [even if approved by President Ashraf Ghani]; and a Taliban belief that it can prevail militarily without a deal,” he said.
“But the biggest deal-breaker may be an inability of the Taliban negotiators to get all the factions of the Taliban to follow any peace document that is signed.”
Galbraith said the determination by US President Donald Trump’s administration to withdraw, regardless of the consequences, was probably the single most important factor in making a US-Taliban deal possible.
Intense fighting continues across the country even as the Taliban remains in talks with the US. The group now controls or holds influence over more Afghan territory than at any point since 2001.
According to a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), as of January 31 last year, 229 districts were under the Afghan government’s control, which is about 56.3 percent of the total Afghan districts.
On the other hand, 59 districts, approximately 14.5 percent of all, were under the Taliban control.
The remaining 119 districts, about 29.2 percent, remain contested – controlled by neither the Afghan government nor the rebels.
“As the peace talks are entering an important phase, the Taliban want to maximise their leverage and speak from a position of strength at the negotiating table,” Azami, the academic, said.
“In addition, the Taliban leadership is under pressure from their military commanders not to agree to a ceasefire before achieving a tangible goal.”
The armed group has also said on several occasions that there will be no ceasefire until a US troop withdrawal.
When the loya jirga (grand council) in May called for an immediate ceasefire between the government and Taliban during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani agreed to a truce provided it was not “one-sided”.
However, the Taliban rejected the call for a ceasefire, saying waging a war during Ramadan had “even more rewards”.
In an interview with TOLOnews, Afghanistan’s largest private television station, Khalilzad said last month that any peace agreement with the Taliban would depend on the declaration of a permanent ceasefire and a commitment to end the war.
“If the Taliban insist on going back to the system they used to have, in my personal opinion it means the continuation of war, not peace,” Khalilzad said.
In February this year, a two-day conference was held in the Russian capital between the Taliban and prominent Afghan politicians in a bid to lay down a plan for ending the war.
But Ghani dismissed the Moscow talks, saying those attending carried no negotiating authority.
In May, a delegation of Taliban negotiators, who met Afghan politicians in Moscow, said “decent progress” was made at the talks in the Russian capital but there was no breakthrough.
“The Islamic Emirate wants peace but the first step is to remove obstacles to peace and end the occupation of Afghanistan,” the group’s Baradar said, referring to the Taliban.
A UN released earlier this year said that 2018 saw the highest number of civilians killed in Afghanistan’s war than any other year on record.
Civilian deaths jumped to 3,804 people killed, an 11 percent increased compared to the year before. The death toll included 927 children, while another 7,189 people were wounded, according to the UN figures, as suicide attacks and bombings wreaked havoc across Afghanistan.
In another report released by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan in May, Afghan and international forces, including NATO, killed more civilians in the first three months of this year than the Taliban or fighters from other armed groups.
At least 305 civilians were killed by pro-government forces between January and March, with 52.5 percent of all deaths coming in that period.
With the spike in violence, there is a growing desperation for peace among ordinary Afghans. “If the talks collapse, fighting will further intensify and the Afghan people will suffer more,” Azami said.
“The Taliban would try to increase their territorial control and put maximum pressure on the Afghan government by attempting to capture cities, including provincial capitals and taking control of major highways,” he said.
Azami said the Afghans and the rest of the world would have to deal with a “possible security vacuum in which groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIL found fertile ground”.
“Increased production of drugs and the overflow of refugees would pose serious challenges not only to Afghanistan but to the whole region and rest of the world,” he said.