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Taliban says deal on US troop pullout from Afghanistan is near

Traveling by helicopter over Kandahar province, Afghanistan. (USACE Photo by Karla Marshall/Released)

The Taliban said it’s nearing a peace deal with the U.S. to bring an end to the foreign military presence in Afghanistan, though it ruled out a halt to hostilities for now.

“We are getting close,” Mohammad Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban’s Doha-based political office, said by phone on Thursday. If the U.S. makes “a reasonable and convincing proposal, the peace agreement will be concluded soon.”

The fundamentalist Islamic movement and the U.S. are due to resume negotiations soon in the Qatari capital after adjourning their seventh round of meetings earlier this month. U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani agreed Wednesday in a phone call that “now is the time to accelerate efforts to reach a negotiated end to the war,” according to a State Department statement.

Pompeo said in a Fox News interview late Thursday that he expects “real progress” in reaching agreement by September on “a complete reduction in the scope of the conflict,” allowing for inter-Afghan peace talks to begin followed by the start of a withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces.

The Taliban controls or contests about half of territory in Afghanistan. That’s more than at any time since it was ousted from power in 2001 by an American-led invasion after the al-Qaida group based in the country carried out the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. The Taliban refuses to hold talks with the authorities in Kabul until it first reaches a binding deal with the Trump administration on withdrawing foreign forces.

While it wants the 14,000 U.S. troops and allied NATO forces to leave Afghanistan, the Taliban is showing some signs of flexibility over the timetable, dropping its previous insistence that the withdrawal happen within months.

“We hope the Americans come up with a reasonable timeline and that we can agree to,” said Shaheen, who declined to say how soon the foreign forces should go.

After losing more than 2,400 soldiers and spending more than $900 billion in Afghanistan since 2001, critics say the U.S. risks losing hard-won gains. President Donald Trump on Monday called the nearly 18-year campaign “ridiculous” and said he could win the conflict in a week but “I don’t want to kill 10 million people.” Ghani’s office responded that Afghanistan “will never allow any foreign power to determine its fate.”

U.S. envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad described the latest round of talks that paused July 9 as the “most productive” ever. Among U.S. demands is a commitment by the Taliban to stop terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State from continuing to use Afghanistan as a base of operations.

Despite its conciliatory language, the Taliban insists it won’t accept a single foreign soldier remaining on Afghan soil, fanning fears in Kabul that the U.S. will leave the government at the mercy of its armed opponents.

“The Afghan people see it as occupation, whether it is 1,000 or 100 soldiers,” Shaheen said. “So we want this to end.”

The Taliban won’t consider a halt to violence until they thrash out a settlement with other Afghans after the U.S. commits to pull out its forces, Shaheen said. The U.S. maintains that no deal can take effect until the Taliban talks directly with the Afghan government, something the militant group has resisted.

The Taliban will join negotiations that involve all of Afghanistan’s political forces and not just the administration in Kabul, Shaheen said. It also refuses to recognize the result of the Afghan presidential election planned for Sept. 28, irrespective of the outcome of the talks with the U.S.

“This election is not a remedy to the problem of Afghanistan,” said Shaheen. “It only prolongs the war.”


(Meyer reported from Moscow, Najafizada from Kabul.)


© 2019 Bloomberg News

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