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US hails talks with Taliban, denies troop withdrawal window

Train, Advise and Assist Command-Air operations advisers observe an MD-530 during the final exercise of the Afghan tactical air coordinator course Sept. 5, 2018, in Kabul, Afghanistan.

NANCY C. KASBERG/U.S. AIR FORCE

By KATHY GANNON | Associated Press | Published: July 6, 2019

KABUL, Afghanistan — The latest round of talks with the Taliban — now in their second week — has been "very productive," a U.S. negotiator said, and denied Washington sought a fixed deadline for the withdrawal of its estimated 14,000 troops from Afghanistan as part of a final peace deal in the 17-year-old war.

Negotiations picked up momentum after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, at the end of last month. He said then that Washington was hopeful of an agreement before Sept. 1.

The appointment last year of Zalmay Khalilzad as U.S. special peace envoy began the accelerated effort to find a negotiated end to Afghanistan's war and America's longest military engagement.

Since then, Khalilzad has held scores of talks with the Afghan government in Kabul and abroad, with the Taliban as well as with Afghanistan's neighbors — including Pakistan, which has been accused of aiding the insurgents.

The Taliban have refused to talk directly with Kabul, considering it a U.S. puppet. The insurgents, however, say they will sit down with any Afghan, even a government official, but as an ordinary citizen and not as a government representative.

The Taliban currently control or contest nearly half of Afghanistan, the latest U.S military assessment said last fall, more than at any time since the October 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

More than 2,400 U.S. service personnel have died in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led coalition invaded in October 2001 to oust the Taliban and hunt down al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

The U.S. official in Qatar's capital, Doha, where the Taliban maintain a political office and where talks are being held, told The Associated Press on Friday that the U.S. "definitely did not offer" an 18-month withdrawal as part of a peace deal. That's the time frame that Taliban officials gave the AP months ago.

The official spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the talks. .

The U.S. negotiator said the deal being negotiated in Doha with the Taliban is "comprehensive and includes specifics on all four parts including a cease-fire, timeline, participating in intra-Afghan negotiations and counter-terrorism assurances."

On Saturday, several prominent Afghan figures left Kabul for Doha ahead of much-anticipated all-Afghan talks to begin Sunday. The talks are co-sponsored by Germany and Qatar, and include the Taliban.

An earlier round of intra-Afghan talks, which were to be held last April, were scuttled after the two sides could not agree on participants. The Afghan government had submitted a list of 250 people. The Taliban likened it to a wedding party.

This time the Taliban say 60 people will participate.

Attaullah Rahman Salim, the deputy head of the government's high peace council, said 64 would be sitting around the table.

The list includes former mujahedeen who fought the Soviet in the 1980s as well as former government officials, former ambassadors, civil society representatives and a small number of women.

Participants at the table will be there as ordinary Afghans "on equal footing" and not as government representatives, said the German sponsors.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has been conspicuously quiet about the upcoming intra-Afghan dialogue, has consistently demanded Taliban talk directly with the government.

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