US and Taliban to hold new talks in Doha after month-long lull

The US envoy negotiating with the Taliban will hold new talks this month with the group in Qatar, the US State Department has said, as momentum builds for a deal to end America’s longest war.

Zalmay Khalilzad, a veteran US policymaker who is leading President Donald Trump’s push to broker a peace deal with the Taliban, left on Friday on a 17-day trip that will take him to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Germany, Belgium and the United Arab Emirates, the state department said on Saturday.

In Doha, he will resume talks with the Taliban after a break of around a month “to move the peace process forward”, the department said in a statement.

Khalilzad has already met six times with the Taliban in recent months as he looks to seal a deal under which the United States will pull out troops who were first deployed following the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The US and the Taliban are believed to have largely agreed on a key demand of Washington: that the Taliban should not allow Afghanistan to be used by armed groups.

But a major sticking point remains the refusal of the Taliban to negotiate with President Ashraf Ghani’s government, which enjoys international support while the Taliban considers it a “puppet” of the West.

The Taliban, believing it has leverage on the military front, has also rejected Ghani’s overtures for a nationwide ceasefire.

“No one should expect us to pour cold water on the heated battlefronts of jihad or forget our 40-year sacrifices before reaching our objectives,” Taliban chief Haibatullah Akhunzada said, in a rare message released on Saturday.

‘Intra-Afghan negotiations’

About 17,000 foreign troops, including a contingent of some 14,000 US soldiers, are based in Afghanistan as part of a US-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some US forces also carry out “counterterrorism” operations.

The US has said it will not agree to any withdrawal of troops as part of an eventual peace deal until the Taliban puts in place security guarantees, implements a ceasefire and signs off on other commitments including an “intra-Afghan” dialogue with the Kabul government and other Afghan representatives.

But the Taliban insists it will not do any of these things until the US announces a troop withdrawal timeline.

In Kabul, Khalilzad will meet representatives of civil society and women’s rights groups, which have been especially concerned about a larger role for the Taliban.

Khalilzad will “encourage all parties to work towards intra-Afghan negotiations that lead to a final peace settlement,” the state department said.

Germany, another of Khalilzad’s stops, has voiced willingness to hold a meeting on peace in Afghanistan.

The US peace envoy will start his trip in Pakistan, the chief backer of the Taliban before the September 11 attacks and which has used its contacts to facilitate the talks with the Taliban.