US, Taliban ‘agree’ on troop withdrawal plan

| Pullout in 18 months and ceasefire will be ‘limited and conditional’ | US envoy says significant progress made in Qatar

Washington  -   The United States and the Taliban have ‘agreed’ on a plan for American troops to leave Afghanistan, sources privy to the development told VOA Saturday. In return, the insurgent group has given assurances that no international terrorist groups would be allowed to use Afghan soil to threaten America or any other country in future.

The understanding is the outcome of nearly a week of intense and uninterrupted dialogue between US and insurgent representatives in Doha, Qatar. Representatives of the host government and Pakistan have also been in attendance.

The US and the Afghan Taliban have made “significant progress” in talks aimed at ending the 17-year-old conflict in Afghanistan, the US envoy has said. In a series of tweets, Zalmay Khalilzad did not give details but said the unprecedented six days of talks in Qatar were “more productive than they have been in the past”.

The envoy, however, added: “We have a number of issues left to work out. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and “everything” must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive ceasefire.”

He said he was on his way to Kabul to consult Afghan government officials.

The Taliban rejected media reports about a possible “agreement on a ceasefire” was signed. “Reports by some media outlets about agreement on a ceasefire and talks with the Kabul administration are not true,” Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said in a statement shared with Al Jazeera.

Earlier on Saturday, the Reuters news agency reported that the Taliban and the United States had agreed on a draft peace deal, citing Taliban sources.

The Taliban said that “the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and other vital issues saw progress”. “The policy of the Islamic Emirate during talks was very clear: Until the issue of withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan is agreed upon, progress in other issues is impossible,” Mujahid said.

Khalilzad also denied a draft deal was agreed upon. “We will build on the momentum and resume talks shortly. We have a number of issues left to work out,” he tweeted.

Qatari officials have denied reports that Afghan intelligence chief Mohammad Massoum Stanikzai flew to Doha to participate in the talks.

The sources told VOA they expected the two negotiating sides to announce the withdrawal plan as early as Saturday and at the latest by Monday, if all goes as planned. The US drawdown plan would require the Taliban to observe a ceasefire. However, both the withdrawal and the ceasefire will be “limited and conditional.” Sources, however, do not rule out the possibility of President Donald Trump announcing the final agreement with the Taliban at his State of the Union speech now that the US government shutdown has ended.

The sources told VOA they believe that the agreement on conditional and limited withdrawal and ceasefire will give both sides an opportunity to test the waters “without taking too huge of a political risk.”

Quoting a source, Reuters news agency reported that the agreement highlights that the deal includes guarantees that Al-Qaeda and Daesh will not be able to use Afghanistan as a base for terrorism. Moreover, the deal urges the foreign military forces that are present in the central Asian country to withdraw within 18 months, the source added.

The two sides have also agreed on other sticking points including the exchange of prisoners and the lifting of travel bans on some Taliban leaders.

Officials in Pakistan take full credit for persuading the Taliban to engage in the dialogue at the US request. “Pakistan’s success is that it has sincerely and faithfully diverted the recent positive environment and energy in its relations with the US to the complete benefit of Afghan peace process, and Afghanistan as a whole,” a senior official told VOA as the talks progressed in Doha.

Islamabad insists a peaceful Afghanistan is key to Pakistan’s future security and economic stability as well as the region in general.

Pakistani officials believe any agreement at this stage will help bridge the trust gap between the US and the Taliban, and will “add a much needed political capital” to Washington’s account to achieve the ultimate goal of peace in Afghanistan. This agreement may prove an important asset in later more serious stages of negotiations, they say.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s nascent government, which has made a resolution of the Afghan conflict its top foreign policy priority, sees the US continued involvement in Afghanistan reconstruction key to future security and economic stability of the region.

“This political reconciliation must succeed. ... We wish that the US leaves Afghanistan as friend of the region, not as a failure,” Pakistan Army spokesman Major-General Asif Ghafoor said before the Doha talks.

It is not clear whether the Taliban has agreed to engage in direct talks with President Ashraf Ghani’s national unity government in Afghanistan, an administration that critics say remains fragile, marred with political controversies and suffers from “disunity.”

The Taliban have so far refused to engage with the Afghan government in a peace process, dismissing it as an illegitimate entity and “American puppet.”

Speaking during the World Economic Forum meeting this week in Davos, President Ghani for the first time publicly criticized the Khalilzad-led peace effort and indicated the Afghan government may not accept any possible outcome of the Doha talks.

Ghani warned that any truce the US eventually signs with the Taliban must pave the way for direct talks between his government and the insurgents to decide all issues, including foreign troop withdrawal. “There’s discussion, but this discussion needs to be shared back. A discussion that does not involve the region we will not trust,” Ghani said when asked whether the talks in Qatar were nearing a breakthrough.

“If we don’t get all the pieces right, one piece alone doesn’t suffice,” he added.

According to Afghanistan’s Tolo News, sources said that US officials have asked for a ceasefire but Taliban have demanded a timeline be drawn up for the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan before agreeing to this.

Taliban said they first want to be assured by the US that there will be no threat to regional countries especially Pakistan and then a ceasefire will take place, the sources said.

In these talks, the sources said, Zalmay Khalilzad asked Taliban to hold talks with the Afghan government and said the talks should be aimed at reforms and not for a demand by the Taliban to control Afghanistan. However, according to the sources, Taliban have not responded to this call.

Based on unconfirmed reports, Taliban’s representatives will visit Kabul soon to talk with the Afghan government.

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