KABUL, Afghanistan -- The U.S. peace envoy to Afghanistan said Saturday that for the first time he can report "substantive" progress on all four issues key to a peace agreement in the country's 17-year war, calling the latest round of talks with the Taliban the "most productive" so far.
Zalmay Khalilzad said discussions with the Taliban, which earlier had been exclusively about troop withdrawal and anti-terrorism guarantees, have broadened to include a timeline for intra-Afghan negotiations as well as a cease-fire. He declined to give details, however. The talks are to resume Tuesday.
Khalilzad said it will ultimately be up to Afghans to decide among themselves the agenda for negotiations as well as the terms of a cease-fire.
An Afghan delegation headed to Qatar for separate peace talks with Taliban leaders starting today, adding to signs that an end to the conflict could be within reach.
So far, the Taliban have refused to talk directly with the current Afghan government, considering it a U.S. puppet. The insurgents, however, have consistently said they will sit down with any Afghan, even a government official, but only if the person is there as an ordinary citizen and not as a government representative.
The Taliban control nearly half of Afghanistan and are more powerful 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 a coalition invaded to oust the Taliban and hunt down al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
About 3,550 total members of the U.S.-led NATO coalition have died in the war.
In the past five years, more than 20,000 civilians and 45,000 Afghan security forces have been killed. Taliban casualties are difficult to verify, but their losses are believed to be similar to those of the Afghan forces.
In a news briefing in Doha, Qatar, where Khalilzad has been meeting with the Taliban, he said he hoped that the all-Afghan talks beginning today in Doha will be a precursor to negotiations to hammer out the framework for Afghanistan's postwar future -- what he called the "actual give and take about the future of the country, the political road map that will take place during negotiations."
He said the U.S.' "aspiration" is to have that framework in place by Sept. 1, ahead of the Afghan presidential election scheduled for Sept. 28.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who is running for a second term, has said the election needs to go ahead as scheduled.
Khalilzad said an agreement on the framework for Afghanistan's future would be akin to a blueprint that would lay out issues important to all sides in the conflict, including constitutional revisions, interim government versus elections, the fate of militias, a cease-fire and even whether the country should be named the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan or the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
He refused to discuss details, but said his biggest challenge was "to get a framework agreed to that isn't just a withdrawal agreement" but one that includes a political road map so "that we can leave a good legacy behind with a government and political order that Afghans agree to."
U.S. and Taliban officials have remained tight-lipped about what the sticking points are, with some only specifying that they are trying to iron out details related to the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
A visit by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, at the end of last month seemed to give fresh impetus to peace efforts, and Sept. 1 emerged as the target date for a peace deal to end America's longest-running military engagement.
Khalilzad's appointment last September began the accelerated effort to find a negotiated end to the war.
Since then, Khalilzad has held scores of talks with the Afghan government, the Taliban and Afghanistan's neighbors -- including Pakistan, which has been accused of aiding the insurgents.
Khalilzad said the atmosphere during recent talks with the Taliban was the best yet -- with both sides finding shared humor -- as opposed to previous talks, which had on occasion ended in acrimony, shouting and the occasional walkout.
The Afghan delegation arrived Saturday in Qatar, which has hosted all the peace talks. The U.S.-Taliban talks will pause for two days while the Afghan sides meet.
The meeting facilitated by Germany and Qatar will be a "historic opportunity for all of them to bridge trust deficit, which will help pave the way for direct peace negotiations between Afghan government and the Taliban," said Asadullah Zaeri, a spokesman for Afghanistan's High Peace Council.
A similar meeting collapsed in April at the last minute because of disagreements over participants. The Afghan government had submitted a list of 250 people. The Taliban likened it to a wedding party.
Both sides had already held two rounds of separate meetings, and in Moscow they exchanged views on peace. Ghani had protested the Moscow meetings, saying they lacked government representatives.
The Taliban have repeatedly rebuffed Ghani's call for direct peace negotiations and called his government illegitimate.
This time, the Taliban say 60 people will participate.
Attaullah Rahman Salim, the deputy head of the peace council, said 64 would be sitting around the table.
The list includes senior members of the government, former mujahedeen who fought the Soviet Union in the 1980s, former government officials, former ambassadors, civil society representatives and representatives of women's groups.
Khalilzad said that for the first time, the Afghan-to-Afghan talks include senior members of Ghani's government, even if they are there as ordinary Afghans. Khalilzad said the exchange allows both sides to get to know the other, which he hopes will lead to negotiations.
Participants at the table will be there "on equal footing" and not as government representatives, according to the German and Qatari sponsors of the talks.
Information for this article was contributed by Kathy Gannon of The Associated Press; by Eltaf Najafizada and Patrick Henry of Bloomberg News; and by Mujib Mashal of The New York Times.
In this Feb. 8, 2019, file photo, Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad is shown at the U.S. Institute of Peace, in Washington.
A Section on 07/07/2019
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