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U.S.-Taliban talks appear closer to pact after marathon negotiations in Qatar 

Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration’s special envoy for Afghan peace, speaks during a news conference in Kabul in 2009.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration’s special envoy for Afghan peace, speaks during a news conference in Kabul in 2009. (Rafiq Maqbool/AP)

KABUL — After six days of intensive negotiations, Taliban insurgents and U.S. officials meeting in Qatar appear closer Saturday to an agreement that could result in the withdrawal of American troops after 17 years of war.

Initial reports from Doha, the Qatari capital, said the outlines of an agreement have been reached and a joint statement was imminent, but by Saturday night there were indications of a stumbling block over U.S. demands for a lengthy cease-fire and the inclusion of Afghan officials in talks. 

The insurgents have demanded that the Trump administration lay out a timetable for a U.S. troop pullback, and they have said they will not stop attacking Afghan and foreign targets until all U.S. troops have been ordered to leave.

The Trump administration has been eager to end the U.S. role in a war that has cost 2,400 American lives and billions of dollars, and the president has said he wants to send home half of the 14,000 troops now in the country. U.S. officials have asked the Taliban to guarantee that other militias, such as Islamic State militants, will not be allowed to use Afghanistan as a base for attacking Western interests.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration’s special envoy for Afghan peace, left Doha on Saturday and was en route to Kabul for consultations. In several tweets, he said the six days of meetings were “more productive than they have been in the past. We made significant progress on vital issues.”

However, he said that there were “a number of issues left to work out” and that there could be no overall agreement without a cease-fire period that includes dialogue among Afghans. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” he tweeted. 

Until now, Taliban officials have refused to talk to Afghan authorities, insisting that they are the country’s true leaders and that the government of President Ashraf Ghani is an American puppet.

The insurgents have continued fierce assaults on Afghan targets, including a deadly attack on an intelligence agency compound Monday — even as they resumed meeting with Khalilzad in Doha last week after a temporary dispute and then sent a former senior Taliban official, Abdul Ghani Baradar, to Doha to lead the talks after he was released from eight years in Pakistani custody.

“The big challenge is that the Taliban doesn’t trust the U.S.,” said Waheed Mojdah, an analyst in Kabul with longtime Taliban ties. “They are concerned that if the Americans say they will withdraw but then don’t keep their promises, there is nothing they can do.”

Afghan officials have expressed an opposite concern, saying that securing a balanced governing arrangement and protecting public freedoms could be put at risk by the U.S. impatience to end its military involvement. Once U.S. troops leave, Afghan officials have warned, there will be no incentive for the insurgents to compromise on their domestic agenda.

Other observers say that Afghan security forces alone cannot defend the country against the insurgents. They also warn against a repeat of the civil bloodshed that erupted after Soviet forces left Afghanistan in 1989 and the anti-Soviet Islamist militias refused to negotiate with the communist-backed Kabul government.

The Taliban regime, which ruled most of the country from 1996 to 2001, brutally enforced its religious code against women working or studying, and it curtailed rights and liberties for all Afghans. Current Taliban leaders have said they want to establish strict Islamic law again and play a dominant role in governance. 

Since the return of civilian rule in 2002 under two relatively moderate elected presidents, women have entered all realms of public life, Western aid and institutions have played important roles in developing a modern state, and phenomena such as the Internet have exposed the once-isolated Muslim populace to global norms.

Efforts to reach an agreement that includes Afghan officials have been complicated by plans for the presidential election in July. Ghani is seeking reelection and faces more than a dozen challengers. Both Ghani’s team and some rival slates include ardent anti-Taliban figures, and the contest is bound to become entangled in peace talk issues. 

Khalilzad has expressed hopes that an agreement with the Taliban can be reached before the elections take place, which could allow the ex-insurgents to participate in the process. But the Taliban have said they want to deal with a broader range of Afghan leaders, and they have not accepted the legitimacy of the democratic constitution.

A lasting peace deal with the Taliban would be a big foreign policy victory for Trump, who has long pushed for a withdrawal and regularly described the U.S. military operation there as a waste before he entered the White House.

Late last year, Trump grew impatient with the continued American military presence in both Syria and Afghanistan. He ordered a withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 American troops in Syria within 30 days. He also ordered the Pentagon to prepare a drawdown of about half the 14,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Unlike the Syria withdrawal, which is proceeding, albeit not on the 30-day timeline Trump had wanted, the drawdown in Afghanistan has neither been made public by the White House nor has it been executed.

The U.S. military was drafting plans to withdraw only a few thousand of the 14,000 troops, far fewer than the scale Trump had ordered in December. Military advisers have convinced Trump that a smaller and slower withdrawal is best for now, particularly given the ongoing talks with the Taliban.