US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad attends the Intra Afghan Dialogue talks in Doha. AFP
US and Taliban officials will on Tuesday resume talks in Qatar aimed at ending Afghanistan’s 18-year war, hours after a delegation of Afghan citizens and the militants ended a meeting with both sides calling for an end to civilian casualties.
The United States and the Taliban are getting closer to a deal that is expected to be based on a US promise to withdraw troops in exchange for a Taliban promise not to let Afghanistan be used as a base for terrorism, officials say.
While such an agreement might let the United States extricate itself from its longest-ever war, it might not bring peace between the US-backed government based in Kabul and the militants.
The Taliban have refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, denouncing it as a US puppet, but in an effort to foster Afghan reconciliation, a 60-strong delegation of citizens met the Taliban for two days of talks in Qatar from Sunday.
The two sides said in a joint statement late on Monday they were both “committed to respect and protect the dignity of people, their life and property and to minimize the civilian casualties to zero.”
The assurances came a day after Taliban fighters detonated a car bomb outside a government security compound the town of Ghazni in central Afghanistan, killing 14 and wounding more than 100, including scores of children in a school.
The two sides promised to guarantee the security of public institutions such as schools, hospitals and markets.
According to the United Nations, 3,804 civilians - including more than 900 children - were killed and 7,000 wounded in 2018, the deadliest year for civilians in the conflict.
The Taliban control and influence more territory than at any point since they were ousted in 2001.
Last week, the chief US negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, said the latest round of US-Taliban talks, which began on June 29, was the “most productive session” since the process started last year.
“The ongoing seventh round of talks will continue until both sides put a clear agreement in place,” said a senior western official who is privy to the negotiations.
“The stage is now being set for a political settlement between the US and the Taliban ... we can expect the US to make an announcement about troop withdrawal very soon,” he said in Kabul.
This month, US President Donald Trump said he wants to pull US troops out of Afghanistan but was concerned that without a US military presence, it could be used as a base for terrorist attacks on the United States.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said recently the United States wanted a deal with the Taliban by Sept.1 - ahead of an Afghan presidential election due at the end of the month.
US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said on Friday his team was taking “a brief pause” from talks with the Taliban after an attack on a crucial US base this week.
The move, days after US President Donald Trump cancelled a planned meeting with Taliban leaders at his Camp David retreat, came as the movement looks to bolster regional support, with visits also planned for China, Iran and Central Asian states.
The US, which invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban in 2001, wants to withdraw thousands of troops but only in return for the insurgent group renouncing Al-Qaeda and curbing attacks.
As fighting over the disputed region enters its second month, international mediators are scrambling to bring a stop to frontline clashes and shelling of civilian areas that have left hundreds dead.
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