Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said Monday the Taliban should “enter serious talks” with his government, after the insurgents and Washington both touted progress during unprecedented negotiations in Qatar last week.
The Taliban have long refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, branding them “puppets”.
But a months-long diplomatic push by the United States to broker talks culminated in six days of meetings between Washington and the insurgents in Doha, igniting hopes of a breakthrough more than 17 years after the US invasion.
Both the Taliban and the US touted “progress” over the weekend, and the New York Times cited Washington’s special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad on Monday as saying they have formed “a draft of a framework”, though he warned details need to be fleshed out and major sticking points remain.
The points of contention include a ceasefire, a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops, and the Taliban’s ongoing refusal to speak to Kabul.
Afghan authorities have previously complained of being excluded from the talks, and warned that any deal between the US and the Taliban would require Kabul’s endorsement.
“I call on the Taliban to… show their Afghan will, and accept Afghans’ demand for peace, and enter serious talks with the Afghan government,” Ghani said in a nationally televised address from the presidential palace in Kabul.
US President Donald Trump’s clear eagerness to end America’s longest war has also weighed heavy on the discussions, and Ghani warned against rushing into a deal, citing violence in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
“We want peace, we want it fast but we want it with a plan,” he continued.
“We should not forget that the victims of this war are Afghans … No Afghan wants foreign troops to remain in their country indefinitely. No Afghan wants to face suicide attacks in hospitals, schools, the mosques, and parks.”
Civilians continue to pay a terrible price for the Taliban insurgency, with some estimates showing the Afghan conflict overtook Syria to become the deadliest in the world in 2018.
– Talks continue –
Ghani has called for talks before, and outlined a peace plan last year which included a ceasefire and bringing the insurgents into mainstream politics.
They did not reply, though in June they did agree to a three-day ceasefire — the first of the entire conflict, prompting an outpouring of joyful celebrations as Taliban fighters posed for selfies and shared ice cream cones with civilians.
Khalilzad — who has been leading the negotiations — arrived in Afghanistan late Sunday to update officials including Ghani on the progress made.
He reassured the Afghans the talks in Qatar remain geared towards bringing the insurgents to the table with Kabul, according to a statement released by Ghani’s office.
“My role is to facilitate,” Khalilzad was quoted as saying in the statement.
The palace said Khalilzad also confirmed that no agreement had been made on a withdrawal, adding that any such decision would be coordinated with Kabul.
The Taliban have insisted foreign troops must pull out. NATO’s combat troops left Afghanistan at the end of 2014, but thousands remain in training, support and counter-terrorism roles.
The US has the largest contingent, roughly 14,000 troops. Trump has already said he wants to pull half of them out, according to US officials.
On Saturday Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that until a withdrawal timetable is decided progress on other issues is “impossible”.
Khalilzad also confirmed there had been no agreement on the issue of a new ceasefire, according to the palace statement.
There was headway on one topic, Khalilzad told the New York Times.
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,” he was quoted as saying.
The Islamists’ harbouring of Al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden were the rationale behind the US invasion, weeks after the jihadist group carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US.
The Islamic State group is also a potent, growing force in Afghanistan, where it is fighting a fierce turf war with the Taliban and has claimed responsibility for many devastating attacks, especially in Kabul.
The Taliban and US officials have agreed to continue negotiations, though no date has been publicly announced.
Afghans have expressed tentative hopes about the talks tempered by fears of an American exit.
Afghan security forces are already taking staggering losses, with 45,000 killed since late 2014, and morale is low. There are fears that a US withdrawal without a deal in place could see the military fracture along ethnic lines, plunging the country further into civil war.
The government, meanwhile, is also facing a presidential election scheduled for July — the middle of the Taliban’s traditional fighting season, with fears the poll could unleash a wave of deadly violence as militants seek to disrupt the vote.