U.S., Taliban at ‘threshold’ of Afghan agreement: U.S. official

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KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. and Taliban negotiators are close to an agreement that would reduce fighting and allow full peace talks among Afghans, a top U.S. official said on Sunday, a day after insurgent forces stormed the strategic northern city of Kunduz.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad speaks during a debate at Tolo TV channel in Kabul, Afghanistan April 28, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo

Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born U.S. diplomat overseeing negotiations for Washington, said he would travel to the Afghan capital of Kabul on Sunday for consultations after wrapping up the ninth round of talks with Taliban officials in Qatar.

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“We are at the threshold of an agreement that will reduce violence and open the door for Afghans to sit together to negotiate an honorable and sustainable peace and a unified, sovereign Afghanistan that does not threaten the United States, its allies, or any other country,” he said in a Twitter post.

The comment came a day after a major show of strength by hundreds of Taliban fighters who overran parts of Kunduz, a city they have twice come close to taking in recent years, setting off a day of gunbattles and air strikes to drive them back.

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Khalilzad gave no details of the deal, which is expected to see thousands of U.S. troops withdrawn from Afghanistan in exchange for guarantees by the Taliban not to allow the country to be used as a base for militant attacks abroad.

“We will now discuss these developments with our own leadership, while Zalmay Khalilzad is supposed to go to Kabul and inform the Afghan leadership about the decisions made in the peace talks,” said a senior Taliban leader privy to the talks.

The agreement would not on its own end the fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security forces, but would allow the start of so-called “intra-Afghan” peace talks, which are expected to be held in the Norwegian capital of Oslo.

However it was not clear whether the Taliban would agree to talk directly with the Western-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani, which they consider an illegitimate foreign-imposed regime.

Some Taliban officials have said they would only agree to talk to Afghan officials in a private capacity, not as representatives of the state, and they remain opposed to presidential elections scheduled for Sept. 28.

It was also unclear whether the agreement would cover the full withdrawal of all 14,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan or how long a pullout would take.

More than 20,000 foreign troops are in the country, most serving as part of a NATO-led mission to train and assist Afghan forces. Thousands of U.S. troops are also engaged in a separate counter-terrorism mission fighting militant groups such as Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

Suicide bombings and combat operations have continued throughout the talks and the fighting in Kunduz underlined the vulnerability of large parts of Afghanistan, where the Taliban control more territory than at any time since being overthrown by a U.S.-led campaign in 2001.

Taliban fighters, who control large parts of the surrounding countryside, stormed the city in the early hours of Saturday, seizing large areas, including a hospital, before Afghan security forces backed by air strikes pushed them back.

Reporting by James Mackenzie, Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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