The U.S. and the Taliban reportedly agreed over the weekend on a draft framework for a peace accord in which the American-NATO-led foreign troops would withdraw from Afghanistan in exchange for guarantees to prevent other terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) from operating in the country.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s top reconciliation envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Taliban have confirmed the existence of the draft peace pact.
Citing Taliban sources, Reuters reports that U.S.-led foreign troops are expected to quit Afghanistan “in 18 months” as part of the peace pact, marking a significant American concession long sought by the terrorist group.
“In 18 months, if the foreign forces are withdrawn and ceasefire is implemented, then other aspects of the peace process can be put into action,” an unnamed Taliban source told Reuters, quoting from a portion of the draft obtained by the news outlet.
The Taliban has committed to preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups like its ally al-Qaeda and rival ISIS, Khalilzad told the New York Times (NYT) on Monday.
An unnamed Taliban source who attended the latest round of talks in Qatar on Saturday, the day the two sides reportedly “agreed” on the draft peace accord, told BBC the negotiators agreed to form two panels to come up with a detailed plan on how to implement the agreements.
The committees would “identify routes for the withdrawal, and how much time is needed. We suggested six months, but are flexible,” the Taliban source told BBC.
The United States has a single vital national interest in Afghanistan: to prevent it from becoming a safe-haven from which terrorist groups can plan and execute attacks against the U.S. homeland, U.S. citizens, and our interests and allies abroad. Our ultimate goal in Afghanistan is a negotiated political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Reuters learned from its Taliban source that more discussions on the draft are expected to take place February, again in the Qatari capital of Doha, home to the group’s political office.
Citing the Taliban sources, Reuters confirms:
[T]he hard-line Islamic group gave assurances that Afghanistan will not be allowed to be used by al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants to attack the United States and its allies — a key early demand of Washington.
They said the deal included a ceasefire provision but they had yet to confirm a timeline and would only open talks with Afghan representatives once a truce was implemented.
So far, the Taliban has repeatedly refused to negotiate directly with the Afghan government, dismissing it as a “puppet” of the U.S. The Taliban considers itself the only legitimate government of Afghanistan.
Referring to the draft peace pact, Reuters adds:
The Taliban sources said other clauses in the draft include an agreement over the exchange and release of prisoners, the removal of an international travel ban on several Taliban leaders by Washington and the prospect of an interim Afghan government after the ceasefire is struck.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has officially registered to run for president during the July 20 elections, has repeatedly objected to the formation of an interim government. While briefing Ghani on the negotiations, Khalilzad reportedly denied that the U.S. discussed the prospect of an interim government.
“The Taliban sources also confirmed provisions in the draft that have broader implications for Afghanistan’s ties with its neighbors, particularly Pakistan, India and China,” Reuters further notes, without elaborating further.
Via Twitter on Saturday, the day the two sides reportedly “agreed” on the draft accord, Khalilzad acknowledged that the talks in Qatar over the weekend made “significant progress.”
He noted that negotiations would resume shortly.
“Meetings here were more productive than they have been in the past. We have made significant progress on vital issues,” he wrote, conceding that the U.S. and the Taliban still need to hash out various issues.
“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and everything must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive ceasefire,” he tweeted.
1/3 After six days in Doha, I'm headed to #Afghanistan for consultations. Meetings here were more productive than they have been in the past. We made significant progress on vital issues.
— U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad (@US4AfghanPeace) January 26, 2019
On Sunday, Khalilzad briefed President Ghani in Kabul “on the progress” in the peace negotiations, the envoy tweeted on Monday.
— U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad (@US4AfghanPeace) January 28, 2019
Khalilzad also confirmed the existence of the draft accord in an interview with NYT on Monday, telling the newspaper in Kabul:
We have a draft of the framework that has to be fleshed out before it becomes an agreement. The Taliban have committed, to our satisfaction, to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals. We felt enough confidence that we said we need to get this fleshed out, and details need to be worked out.
According to the Pentagon, the Afghanistan-Pakistan region is home to the highest concentration (20) of terrorist groups in the world.
On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the top American peace envoy’s boss, noted on Twitter that he had received “encouraging news” from Khalilzad about the discussions.
“The U.S. is serious about pursuing peace, preventing #Afghanistan from continuing to be a space for international terrorism & bringing forces home,” Pompeo tweeted, without providing a timetable for the potential withdrawal of American forces.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) January 26, 2019
The Taliban also acknowledged progress on its long-sought goal of foreign troop withdrawal and other issues in its statement issued Saturday, noting that more negotiations and internal consultations are needed.
“The policy of the Islamic Emirate [Taliban] during talks was very clear — until the issue of withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan is agreed upon, progress in other issues is impossible,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, declared in a statement posted on Twitter.
— Zabihullah (ذبیح الله م ) (@Zabihullah_4) January 26, 2019
“It was not clear whether the draft described by the Taliban sources was acceptable to both sides or when it could be completed and signed,” Reuters points out.
The Trump administration has intensified peace negotiations with the Taliban in recent months.
Under Trump, American officials have come out in support of President Ghani’s olive branch offer to the Taliban of a ceasefire and recognition as a legitimate political organization, a move that would effectively grant the terrorist group an opportunity to return to power in Kabul.
U.S. troops toppled the Taliban regime in December 2001, a few months after the Afghanistan war began in October of that same year, in response to the Taliban harboring al-Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks on the American homeland.
The Taliban, which a U.S. watchdog agency believes controls or contests about 45 percent of Afghanistan, considers itself the legitimate government of the country and is fighting to implement strict Islamic laws, or sharia.
Taliban jihadis generate the vast majority of their funding from cultivating and trafficking opium and its heroin derivative, a portion of which is fueling the unprecedented lethal overdose crisis that has killed tens of thousands in the United States.
Afghan women — mistreated by the group, particularly under its tenure (1996 to 2001) as ruler of Afghanistan — have expressed concern about the potential U.S. withdrawal and peace pace, the Times reports.
“We don’t want a peace that will make the situation worse for women’s rights compared to now,” Robina Hamdard, head of the legal department for the Afghan Women’s Network, told NYT.
The peace talks have taken place amid near-daily attacks against the U.S.-backed Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) that have killed and maimed scores of them and Afghan civilians. ANDSF includes police and military units.
News reports surfaced last month that the United States was considering withdrawing almost half of its 14,000 troops, but the White House said President Trump had not issued any orders to pull out.