By Mujib Mashal
Although more than two weeks of talks between the United States and the Taliban ended Tuesday without a breakthrough, two U.S. officials said they were close to a final agreement on one crucial element to a framework for ending the long war: a Taliban promise to not allow terrorist attacks from Afghanistan.
The officials also said they had made substantial progress on a second element, detailing a plan for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The chief U.S. peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, was expected to fly back to Washington on Tuesday night to brief Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“My time here was well spent,” Khalilzad said as he left the talks. “We made progress, and we had detailed discussions to reach an understanding on issues that are difficult and complicated.”
The Taliban continued an internal meeting after the U.S. negotiators left the resort in Doha, where the talks have taken place under tight security.
“This round of talks saw extensive and detailed discussions taking place regarding two issues that were agreed upon during January talks,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said in a statement. “Those two issues were the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and preventing anyone from harming others from Afghan soil.”
He added, “Progress was achieved regarding both these issues. For now, both sides will deliberate over the achieved progress, share it with their respective leaderships.”
The sides are expected to meet again later this month, in the hopes of finalizing a deal.
But the lack of a clear breakthrough in talks right before spring, when fighting usually intensifies, raises concerns of another bloody year ahead. The war has taken the lives of tens of thousands of Afghan civilians, more than 100,000 Afghan and Taliban fighters combined, more than 2,400 Americans and more than 1,000 forces from other members of the military coalition that invaded Afghanistan almost 18 years ago.
In the negotiations, the Americans have been trying to achieve the United States’ initial goal in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks by al-Qaeda: the prevention of terrorist attacks launched from Afghanistan against the United States and its allies. At the time of the September 11 attacks, al-Qaeda was based in Afghanistan, which was controlled by the Taliban.
A senior US official said the Taliban had hammered out a detailed proposal for an agreement on preventing terrorist attacks from Afghanistan, and it had specifically mentioned al-Qaeda — a difficult issue for the Taliban insurgents, who have never denounced the extremist group. Taliban officials suggested they would be walking a delicate line on the language of this clause, trying to reach an understanding that was acceptable to the United States but that would not anger their own fighters or cause division in their ranks.
The US side was satisfied with the enforcement mechanisms for such a Taliban pledge, the official said, without offering details.
Both sides had also engaged in long sessions over the details of a US timeline for withdrawing its troops, the officials said. But progress on this point was slow, and the negotiators remained far from agreement.
While the Taliban have demanded a withdrawal within as little as six months, the U.S. side has been pushing for three years.
Several factors slowed progress during the talks, officials said, chief among them an environment of mistrust where each side believed the other could be using negotiations as a distraction to gain advantage on the battlefield. Another impediment was the Taliban’s caution in moving forward, as they have little experience negotiating texts of such magnitude.
The presence of the Taliban’s deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, helped overcome these hurdles and keep the talks going. Baradar’s first-time participation in talks, after nearly 10 years in Pakistani detention, brought an authority to the Taliban’s negotiating team that was lacking in the past, with negotiators frequently having to wait for answers from the leadership in Pakistan.
Baradar and Khalilzad met personally to troubleshoot when their negotiating teams hit a wall. The two men met close to a dozen times during the negotiations.
The US negotiating team included military experts in logistics and counterterrorism. They were brought in part to help show the Taliban that the Americans were not “padding the time” on the withdrawal, as they contend, and that folding a military presence of 18 years in an orderly way requires time, one American official said.
The US official said a substantial conversation had also taken place about reducing the levels of violence, a clear attempt to head off a Taliban spring offensive, which has taken a high toll on Afghan forces in the past. That would also require a commitment by the U.S. and Afghan forces to slow down their air campaign, which they had ramped up over the winter.
Even if the United States and the Taliban finalize their agreements, they face an uphill task moving the peace process to the next stage, in which the Taliban would negotiate the political future of the country with the Afghan government.
The Taliban have refused to meet with the Afghan government, which in turn has been suspicious of the talks.
But on Tuesday, the government welcomed the recent round.
“We welcome US efforts in the Afghan peace process,” said Haroon Chakhansuri, the spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani. “We hope to witness a long-term comprehensive cease-fire with the Taliban, and hope that direct negotiations of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban begin soon.”
Ghani’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, warned the U.N. Security Council on Monday that the peace process must include representatives of “the new Afghanistan” and not be “a deal made between elites.”
“If peace is going to belong to and be maintained by Afghans, it must ultimately be owned by Afghans themselves,” he said.
Officials from both sides suggested they may try to slowly break the ice in creative ways. That could mean an arrangement where representatives of the Afghan government attend talks with the Taliban as part of a larger group of Afghans, similar to a gathering last month in Moscow, where members of the Taliban met dozens of Afghan opposition politicians.
Another round of talks, similar to the Moscow meeting between that group and the Taliban, is expected in the second week of April in Doha, officials said.
Khalilzad, in a series of tweets after the talks ended, said when “a withdrawal timeline and effective counterterrorism measures is finalized, the Taliban and other Afghans, including the government, will begin intra-Afghan negotiations on a political settlement and comprehensive cease-fire.”
“We will meet again soon, and there is no final agreement until everything is agreed,” he wrote.