U.S. and Taliban Talks Progress Despite Attacks and Regional Tensions

U.S. and Taliban Talks Progress Despite Attacks and Regional Tensions


DOHA, Qatar — American negotiators and Taliban officials set to resume negotiations in the Qatari capital on Saturday expressed guarded optimism that they are getting closer to an agreement that could help end 17 years of conflict, America’s longest war.

During a two-day break from direct negotiations at a holiday resort in Doha, a series of small meetings continued around town to bridge the gap on core issues, such as withdrawal of American troops and prohibiting international terror groups from using Afghan soil, according to several current and former officials from all sides involved in the talks.

“There is progress,” Sohail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban’s negotiating team, said in an interview on Friday. “The technical groups are working on the details of a draft agreement about troop pullout from Afghanistan, and also that Afghanistan’s soil must not be a haven for anyone to use it against other countries. We have moved the agreement forward, but we have not completed it.”

But a host of complications remain, including the continued violence, as neither side has given up making attacks. Even as negotiators were sounding hopeful in Doha, Taliban fighters assaulted a large Afghan Army base in Helmand Province where United States Marines are present, killing at least two dozen Afghan soldiers.

Nevertheless, officials on both sides described a growing rapport between Zalmay Khalilzad, the American special envoy leading the negotiations, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s deputy leader, who is for the first time taking a more direct role in negotiations.

Mullah Baradar met twice with Mr. Khalilzad and Gen. Austin S. Miller, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, joined by Qatar’s foreign minister in the second of those meetings.

In the two full days of negotiations before the sides took a break, the main negotiating teams, led by Mr. Khalilzad for the United States and Sher Mohammed Abas Stanekzai for the Taliban, were supported by technical teams in side rooms off the conference hall. In the Taliban’s technical room, many delegation members scribbled in notebooks, while one had a single MacBook at the table. Mullah Baradar occasionally came in to the technical room to consult.

“We continue to take slow, steady steps toward understanding and eventually peace,” Mr. Khalilzad said.

Other conflicts in the region, however, are complicating the peace effort. Enmity between Qatar and Saudi Arabia has been an issue hanging over the direct talks since they started late last year. And the conflict in recent days between Pakistan and India over Kashmir has also injected uncertainty, officials said.

There is also a large gap between the American and Taliban delegations over the Americans’ insistence that the Taliban agree to talk with the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani about the political future of the country before any troop withdrawal can be finalized.

The Taliban have refused, angering Mr. Ghani, who has repeatedly expressed concern that the current talks’ bypassing of his administration is further destabilizing the already fragile Afghan state. Mr. Ghani’s government was excluded from talks between Afghan political opposition leaders and the Taliban in Moscow last month.

Officials here said that part of the smaller sessions over the past two days have focused on what it would take to reach a cease-fire — another core American demand on the Taliban. Some officials said that one thing being discussed is whether to start with region-specific cease-fires — rather than a nationwide truce — that would coincide with an American troop pullout in those regions.

Officials suggested that even on the issue of future talks that could include the Afghan government there were hopeful signs. One possibility floated for reaching a compromise is that an Afghan negotiating team including government officials and other political leaders would come to Doha as part of a bigger group of Afghans. It remains to be seen how acceptable that is to President Ghani.

Mr. Shaheen, the Taliban delegation’s spokesman, said the insurgents’ position remained the same: They will continue speaking to Afghans, such as the gathering in Moscow, but not negotiate with Mr. Ghani’s representatives if “they are participating as a government.”

“There are two different aspects — one is with the Americans. Once that is finalized, then we will come to the internal side,” Mr. Shaheen said. “If we recognize it as a government, there is no justification for fighting.”

Adding to the complexity are the conflicts between other nations in the broader region.

Qatar, the host of the talks, is isolated by a blockade against it by Saudi Arabia and its gulf allies. A recent Saudi push to become part of American peace efforts frustrated the Qataris, who had long hosted the Taliban at the request of the Americans during the Obama administration.

But Mr. Khalizad, entrusted last year by the Trump administration to move urgently to engage the Taliban in talks, had his doubts about just how authoritative the Taliban representatives in Doha were, according to two senior officials who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations. So Mr. Khalizad also engaged Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in his efforts. Both countries are influential with Pakistan, where the Taliban’s most senior leaders still have sanctuary.

But that effort angered Qatari officials. And the regional rivalries also became too much for the Taliban, which for the most part preferred to work through its office in Qatar on a smaller negotiating agenda.

Another conflict has been the flare-up between Pakistan and India.

As the two nuclear states shot at each other across the border and conducted airstrikes in recent days, the foreign minister of Pakistan came out to remind the Americans that any chaos between India and Pakistan could affect the Taliban talks.

“The regional dimension has to be handled in a way that builds support among the regional actors without importing their separate conflicts into Afghanistan,” said Laurel Miller, a former senior American diplomat now leading the Asia program at the International Crisis Group.



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