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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Taliban hold talks with US envoy in Qatar

The group reportedly wants a postponement of next year's presidential elections and the establishment of an interim government

US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad met Taliban officials in Qatar over the weekend. AP
US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad met Taliban officials in Qatar over the weekend. AP

The US special envoy to Afghanistan hopes to cement a peace deal with Taliban insurgents by April 2019, following three days of talks in the Gulf state of Qatar, where the Afghan insurgent group has a political office.

Afghan-born US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad – now in Kabul to lead talks between the United States, the Taliban and the Afghan government – told reporters he hopes "a peace deal is reached before April 20 next year", when Afghanistan is planning to hold a presidential election.

Mr Khalilzad said he remained "cautiously optimistic" about the peace talks.

The talks are aimed at renewing the Afghan peace process and eventually winding down America's longest war. Seventeen years after the US-led invasion that ended Taliban rule, the militants control nearly half of Afghanistan and carry out near-daily attacks on local security forces and government officials.

Two Taliban officials said Khairullah Khairkhwah, the former Taliban governor of Herat, and Mohammed Fazl, a former Taliban military chief, attended marathon talks with Mr Khalilzad in Doha over the weekend. The two individuals spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the sensitive negotiations.

US officials could not immediately be reached for comment. The State Department has refused to comment on reported talks with the Taliban.

A third individual with knowledge of the discussions said the Taliban pressed for a postponement of next year's presidential elections and the establishment of an interim government under a neutral leadership. Abdul Sattar Sirat, an ethnic Tajik and Islamic scholar, was suggested as a candidate to lead an interim administration.

The individual, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks, said Mr Khalilzad wants to reach a settlement within six months, a timescale the Taliban said was too short. Mr Khalilzad also proposed a cease-fire, which the Taliban rejected, the individual said, adding that there was no agreement on the release of prisoners, opening the Taliban office or lifting a Taliban travel ban.

Messrs Khairkhwah and Fazl were among five senior Taliban members released from the US prison at Guantanamo Bay in 2014 in exchange for US Sgt Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban after walking off his base in Afghanistan in 2009. The five are now based in Qatar, and are seen as having enough stature to sell a peace deal to insurgents fighting on the front lines.

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President Donald Trump harshly criticised the 2014 prisoner exchange, and in a speech last August pledged to send in additional US forces and redouble efforts to defeat the Taliban. But that strategy has had little if any impact on the ground, with the Taliban keeping up a steady tempo of attacks and an ISIS affiliate carrying out massive bombings targeting minority Shiites.

The Trump administration now appears focused on reaching a political settlement with the Taliban, and has given in to a number of the group's longstanding demands, beginning with the holding of direct talks. The Taliban have long refused US demands to negotiate with the Western-backed government in Kabul, which the insurgents view as a puppet regime.

Pakistan has meanwhile released a number of high-level Taliban prisoners, including the movement's co-founder, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. The releases are widely seen as a US-directed move aimed at encouraging the Taliban to participate in talks.

In a lengthy statement issued earlier this month, the Taliban demanded the lifting of sanctions against the group's leaders, the release of prisoners and the recognition of their office in Qatar. The Afghan government is deeply opposed to any recognition of the Qatar office, which the Taliban in the past have billed as a government in exile.

Mr Khalilzad has been touring the region in recent days, and reportedly met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Sunday. He is expected to press President Ghani to cobble together his own negotiating team, which could prove difficult given the deep divisions within the government.