The Mercury

US troop withdrawal quandary


AS US and Taliban negotiator­s push to wrap up talks aimed at securing the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanista­n, disagreeme­nt remains about whether a pact will mean an end to the insurgents’ fight with the US-backed Afghan government.

US and Taliban officials have been negotiatin­g in Qatar since last year on an agreement centred on the withdrawal of US forces, and an end to their longest-ever war, in exchange for a Taliban guarantee that internatio­nal militant groups will not plot from Afghan soil.

US negotiator­s have been pressing the Taliban to agree to peace talks with the Kabul government and to a ceasefire, but a senior Taliban official said that would not happen.

“We will continue our fight against the Afghan government and seize power by force,” said the Taliban commander on condition of anonymity.

US President Donald Trump is impatient to get US forces out of Afghanista­n and end the 18-year war that was launched after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US.

But there are fears among Afghan officials and US national security aides that a troop withdrawal could see Afghanista­n plunged into a new round of civil war that could herald a return of Taliban rule and internatio­nal militants, including Islamic State, finding a refuge.

Another Taliban commander, who also declined to be identified, said a deal was expected to be signed this week under which US forces, which provide all-important air support to Afghan troops, will stop attacking the Taliban and the militants would end their fight against the US troops.

Under the pact, the US would also cease supporting the Afghan government, the Taliban officials said.

“The Americans will not come to the assistance of the Afghan government and its forces in their fight against us,” the first Taliban official said.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the veteran Afghan-American diplomat who has been leading negotiatio­ns on the US side, however rejected the suggestion that US forces would no longer support the Kabul government, saying “no one should be intimidate­d or fooled by propaganda”.

“Let me be clear: we will defend Afghan forces now and after any agreement with the Talibs,” he wrote on Twitter.

“All sides agree Afghanista­n’s future will be determined in intra-Afghan negotiatio­ns,” he said.

The Taliban, fighting to expel foreign forces and re-establish a theocratic Islamic state since their ousting in October 2001, have refused to talk to the government, denouncing it as a US puppet although they have raised the possibilit­y of negotiatio­ns after the deal on the US withdrawal is struck.

Two diplomatic sources with knowledge of the ninth round of talks in Qatar said they expected an agreement to be finalised this week, enabling the US to pull out about 50% of its forces.

A group of at least 30 Afghans had been identified by the government and its allies to talk to the Taliban.

Suhail Shaheen, a spokespers­on for the Taliban political office in Doha, said negotiatio­ns went on late into Sunday.

The two sides would meet again yesterday after internal talks in the morning, Shaheen said.

“Our meeting with the US team will resume in the early evening,” he said.

Most issues had been resolved but a formal agreement had yet to be concluded, he said. |

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Reuters ?? US President Donald Trump meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for bilateral talks at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, yesterday.
| Reuters US President Donald Trump meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for bilateral talks at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, yesterday.

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