Taliban Agrees to Oppose al Qaeda
In a landmark concession to the U.S., the Taliban has agreed to oppose any attempts by militant groups to use Afghanistan to stage terrorist attacks abroad, a person familiar with the deal said, as talks between the insurgents and American diplomats to end the 17-year Afghan war entered a fourth day in the Gulf state of Qatar.
Still under discussion in the talks are the withdrawal of some or all of the approximately 14,000 U.S. forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban’s main demand, and the future status of American military bases in the country, the person said.
Publicly, the Taliban have demanded the complete and immediate withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. But under pressure from their foreign allies and mediators, who have argued that an abrupt troop withdrawal would cost the country desperately needed foreign funding and might lead to civil war, the group’s representatives to the talks in Doha have softened their stance, the people with knowledge of the talks say.
The two sides were expected to issue a joint statement later Thursday, the person said.
The Afghan government and the U.S. embassy in Kabul had no immediate comment on the talks in Doha. On Sunday, as he completed talks with Pakistani officials during a visit to Islamabad, Mr. Khalilzad tweeted: “We’re heading in the right direction with more steps coming by Pakistan that will lead to concrete results.”
With the Taliban carrying out almost daily attacks against government targets and exacting a fearful toll on Afghan soldiers and police, pressure to reach a peace deal has soared. Compounding the pressure is President Trump’s impatience with what he sees as the lack of progress in the nearly $1 trillion war.
Afghan officials suggested this week that Mr. Khalilzad was eager for a sign of progress in the talks that could be announced in the president’s State of the Union address that had been scheduled for next week before Mr. Trump agreed to delay it until the end of the government shutdown.
The Afghan-born Mr. Khalilzad, who has been the American ambassador to Kabul and Baghdad, has vowed to reach a peace deal by April 20, the originally scheduled date for presidential elections here. Since his pledge, the voting has been postponed to July 20.
The U.S. military says Afghan and American forces are inflicting heavy casualties against Taliban forces, too, as each side seeks to shape the direction and outcome of the talks.
Last month, President Trump ordered the Pentagon to start withdrawing about 7,000 U.S. soldiers from Afghanistan, according to two defense officials. A week later, the White House issued a statement denying the president had made such a determination.
U.S. military officials here say that say they have received no orders to reduce American forces but are prepared to shed personnel while retaining some capacity to fight Islamic State and remnants of al Qaeda, which they believe has been almost entirely eradicated.
The continued presence of U.S. bases poses a more difficult conundrum for Washington. The Taliban has demanded their closure, but the officials say they are strategically important to the U.S. at a time of escalating competition for influence with China and Russia and deepening tensions with Iran.