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U.S. and Taliban Make Headway in Talks for Withdrawal From Afghanistan

American and Taliban negotiators are making headway on a deal in which the United States would withdraw troops from Afghanistan in return for a pledge by the Taliban not to allow the country to host terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, senior Taliban officials and Western diplomats said Thursday.

The possibility of an agreement came after a fourth day of face-to-face talks between a delegation led by the American peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Taliban officials in Doha, Qatar, where the insurgents have long maintained an office.

But many of the details remained to be ironed out, including how many American troops would be pulled out and over what period of time.

Though Afghan officials did not publicly criticize the emerging outlines of the agreement, they said any end game to the war would have to be finalized in direct negotiations between the government and the Taliban, which the insurgents have so far spurned.

In the discussions, the United States seemed to be making concrete concessions in exchange for Taliban commitments that would be hard to enforce once American forces leave the country. Most observers do not believe the Afghan military can stand against the Taliban without American support.

Sayed Akbar Agha, a former Taliban official who now lives in Kabul but is known to have strong contacts among the insurgents, said American negotiators had agreed to withdraw United States forces in exchange for a promise that Afghanistan would not become a terrorist base again.

“As I know, both sides agreed on both issues and they will possibly announce it later today,” Mr. Agha said.

Western diplomats in Kabul also said they expected an announcement on the deal to come imminently.

But late on Thursday, the only statement the Taliban offered was about appointing a new chief peace negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a former deputy leader of the group who spent years in Pakistani custody until his recent release.

“This move is for strengthening our negotiations with the American side,” the Taliban said in a statement. Why such an important change was made at a critical stage in negotiations, however, was unclear.

The deal would also provide for a Taliban-supported cease-fire in Afghanistan and the release of some prisoners by both the United States and the Taliban.

A senior Taliban official informed about the talks confirmed the basics of the four-day negotiations but would not confirm that a deal was finalized, preferring to wait for an official statement to be released. “The discussions have been focused on two issues — the withdrawal of the troops and that the soil of Afghanistan will not be used against anyone,” he said.

Another Taliban official, reached by telephone in Quetta, Pakistan, where the insurgency’s senior leadership is based, said that it was too early to say the deal was complete, but that there had been promising progress.

“The agenda is mainly focused on American troop withdrawal, in which the American side is showing some flexibility, but it’s not yet finalized,” he said. “There is more to do before reaching a final agreement.”

Both Taliban officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Nazar Mohammad Mutmaeen, an Afghan political analyst who previously served as an official during the Taliban government, also said the two sides were close to announcing an agreement on a path forward. But Mr. Mutmaeen, who has proved well-informed on Taliban issues in the past, said the Americans were insistent that an agreement on withdrawal of American troops be accompanied by a Taliban agreement on a cease-fire.

“The other important issue in these talks is the exchanging of two Americans in Taliban custody,” Mr. Mutmaeen said. “Americans are asking for the immediate release of one of these two, who is sick. In return, the Americans will release some Taliban prisoners. Talks are not finished yet, so I can’t confirm that both sides are agreed on withdrawal of foreign forces.”

Mr. Mutmaeen said he expected an announcement by the Taliban on Friday before noon prayers.

It is not clear that the Taliban are holding two American prisoners, but the reference might be to two American University of Afghanistan professors, one an American and the other an Australian, who were kidnapped by the Taliban in 2016.

Two Western diplomats in Kabul said the final sticking points were over the timing of any American withdrawal, and whether it would take place over more or less than a year’s time. But they and other diplomats expressed optimism that a breakthrough in the long-moribund peace process could be near.

“We need to be ready,” said Roland Kobia, the European Union’s special envoy for Afghanistan.

Mr. Kobia said the European Union had offered to play the role of a guarantor for the implementation of a future agreement. “This diplomatic and political activity has created totally new dimensions,” he said. “Now, you never know — it could take long, or it can go fast.”

American officials have so far made no comment on the status of the talks in Doha, and Mr. Khalilzad, an Afghan-American who has served as ambassador to both Afghanistan and Iraq, has been unusually quiet on the Twitter account he has used to track peace negotiations. He has met with the Taliban in Doha previously, but so far as is publicly known, never for as long as four days.

Mr. Khalilzad’s last post on the peace process was from Pakistan, after his visit to the capital, Islamabad.

The Americans and the Afghans have encouraged Pakistan to play a stronger role in urging the Taliban to negotiate peace. The Taliban depend on Pakistan for sanctuaries and have a long history of cooperation with the Pakistani military and its intelligence agency.

“We’re heading in the right direction with more steps by Pakistan coming that will lead to concrete results,” Mr. Khalilzad said.

Also present at the Doha talks was Lisa Curtis, deputy assistant to President Trump and senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council.

The talks come amid rising concern among Afghan officials about the threat of an American drawdown.

In December, Pentagon officials said that Mr. Trump had ordered the withdrawal from Afghanistan of 7,000 American troops, about half of the total in the country, but there was no indication that such a withdrawal would be linked to any peace deal.

The White House subsequently denied that Mr. Trump had ordered any withdrawal from Afghanistan, but the report came amid a separate, confirmed order to withdraw American troops from Syria. That order led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a former general who had urged the president to keep troops in both Syria and Afghanistan.

The American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller, assured Afghan officials that no such Afghan withdrawal order had been made, dismissing the accounts as “newspaper rumors.”

Underlying the Afghan concern about an American withdrawal is the conviction in many quarters that the Afghan military would struggle to stand against the Taliban without American military support.

“If we left precipitously right now, I do not believe they would be able to successfully defend their country,” Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the new Central Command head, said in congressional testimony last month. “I think that one of the things that would actually provide the most damage to them would be if we put a timeline on it and we said we were going out at a certain point in time.”

Afghan officials reacted cautiously to the latest development.

President Ashraf Ghani, in a tweet from Davos, Switzerland, pointedly noted that “the function of Ambassador Khalilzad’s office is to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table with Afghan government.”

While a repudiation by the Taliban of groups like Al Qaeda may seem like a small concession, it is a sensitive issue.

Al Qaeda’s use of Afghanistan to stage the Sept. 11 attacks was the reason the United States invaded that country. The Taliban regime in power then hosted the extremists and maintained warm ties with its leaders, including Osama bin Laden.

While the Taliban has repeatedly insisted it no longer has ties with Al Qaeda, whose presence in the region is greatly diminished, it has never explicitly condemned the group or Bin Laden, who is still popular among the Taliban rank and file.

Officials warned there were still numerous steps in the peace process, and American officials will likely insist that the Taliban enter face-to-face talks with the Afghan government, which is bitterly divided.

But Mr. Kobia, the European Union envoy, said it was important to keep the peace momentum up.

“We do not want, in a few months, to turn back and say, ‘Oh my God, we have missed a window of opportunity,’” he said.

[Source: By Rod Nordland and Mujib Mashal, The New York Times, Kabul, 24Jan19]

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