The United States and the Taliban may have agreed on a plan for American troops to leave Afghanistan, sources privy to the development told VOA Saturday. In return, the insurgent group has given assurances that no international terrorist groups would be allowed to use Afghan soil to threaten America or any other country in future.
The understanding is the outcome of nearly a week of intense and uninterrupted dialogue between U.S. and insurgent representatives in Doha, Qatar. Representatives of the host government and Pakistan have also been in attendance.
The sources told VOA they expected the two negotiating sides to announce the withdrawal plan as early as Saturday and at the latest by Monday, if all goes as planned. The U.S. drawdown plan would require the Taliban to observe a cease-fire. However, both the withdrawal and the cease-fire will be “limited and conditional.” Sources, however, do not rule out the possibility of President Donald Trump announcing the final agreement with the Taliban at his State of the Union speech now that the U.S. government shutdown has ended.
There was no immediate comment from the U.S. or the Taliban on the reported progress in their talks. U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad is leading the American side in what observers describe as unprecedented engagement between the two adversaries in the 17-year-old war.
The sources told VOA they believe that the agreement on conditional and limited withdrawal and cease-fire will give both sides an opportunity to test the waters “without taking too huge of a political risk.”
Pakistan takes credit for arranging talks
Officials in Pakistan take full credit for persuading the Taliban to engage in the dialogue at the U.S. request.
“Pakistan’s success is that it has sincerely and faithfully diverted the recent positive environment and energy in its relations with the U.S. to the complete benefit of Afghan peace process, and Afghanistan as a whole,” a senior official told VOA as the talks progressed in Doha.
Islamabad insists a peaceful Afghanistan is key to Pakistan’s future security and economic stability as well as the region in general.
Pakistani officials believe any agreement at this stage will help bridge the trust gap between the U.S. and the Taliban, and will “add a much needed political capital” to Washington’s account to achieve the ultimate goal of peace in Afghanistan. This agreement may prove an important asset in later more serious stages of negotiations, they say.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s nascent government, which has made a resolution of the Afghan conflict its top foreign policy priority, sees the U.S. continued involvement in Afghanistan reconstruction key to future security and economic stability of the region.
“This political reconciliation must succeed. … We wish that the U.S. leaves Afghanistan as friend of the region, not as a failure,” Pakistan army spokesman Major-General Asif Ghafoor said before the Doha talks.
Afghan president’s outburst
It is not clear whether the Taliban has agreed to engage in direct talks with President Ashraf Ghani’s national unity government in Afghanistan, an administration that critics say remains fragile, marred with political controversies and suffers from “disunity.”
The Taliban has so far refused to engage with the Afghan government in a peace process, dismissing it as an illegitimate entity and “American puppet.”
Speaking during the World Economic Forum meeting this week in Davos, President Ghani for the first time publicly criticized the Khalilzad-led peace effort and indicated the Afghan government may not accept any possible outcome of the Doha talks.
Ghani warned that any truce the U.S. eventually signs with the Taliban must pave the way for direct talks between his government and the insurgents to decide all issues, including foreign troop withdrawal.
“There’s discussion, but this discussion needs to be shared back. A discussion that does not involve the region we will not trust,” Ghani said when asked whether the talks in Qatar were nearing a breakthrough.
“If we don’t get all the pieces right, one piece alone doesn’t suffice,” he added.
During his interaction, President Ghani also revealed that since he took office in late 2014 Afghan security forces have lost more than 45,000 personnel while battling the Taliban. Afghan civilians have also born the brunt of the conflict and the United Nations continues to document record levels of civilian casualties in its annual reports. Millions of others have been made refugees within Afghanistan and the warfare discourages many more from returning from refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran.
Aside from the humanitarian consequences of the fighting, it has cost the United States nearly $1 trillion while its military has lost nearly 2,500 personnel. The presence of about 14,000 American soldiers means Washington will continue to pay around $45 billion annually to sustain the military operations if peace talks fail to produce desired results.
An American university research report released late last year noted that the Afghan war has killed around 150,000 people, including government forces, insurgents, U.S. and personnel of the NATO-led coalition. The U.S.-led military invasion stemmed from terrorist attacks on American cities in September 2001 that were plotted by al-Qaida, allegedly out of its bases in Afghanistan.