By Abdul Qadir Sediqi
KABUL (Reuters) – Upcoming peace talks between the United States and the Taliban will focus on working out a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops from Afghanistan and on a Taliban guarantee militants won’t plot attacks from Afghan soil, sources said on Monday.
A seventh round of talks between the warring sides begins on Saturday in Qatar’s capital of Doha, where U.S. and Taliban negotiators have been trying to hammer out a deal to end to the 18-year-long war since October.
“Once the timetable for foreign force withdrawal is announced, then talks will automatically enter the next stage,” said Sohail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Doha.
“We don’t need to wait for the completion of the withdrawal, both withdrawal and talks can move forward simultaneously.”
The focus of the talks has been a Taliban demand for the withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign forces and a U.S. demand the Taliban guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for militant attacks.
Two other main issues in the process are a ceasefire and talks between the rival Afghan sides – the insurgents and the Western-backed government.
But the Taliban have long refused to talk to the Afghan government, denouncing it as foreign “puppet”, and fighting has seen no let-up.
Two other sources with knowledge of the talks said the sixth round in May ended with unease on both sides, but since then informal meeting had taken place to work out what can be agreed on.
The U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has also held informal meetings with the Taliban leadership in Doha.
“Based on my recent visits to Afghanistan and Qatar, I believe all sides want rapid progress,” Khalilzad said on Twitter.
Khalilzad, an Afghan-born American diplomat has been leading the talks to secure a political settlement with the hardline Islamist group that now controls more Afghan territory than at any time since being toppled in 2001 by U.S.-led forces.
About 20,000 foreign troops, most of them American, are in Afghanistan as part of a U.S.-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some U.S. forces carry out counter-terrorism operations.
At least 3,804 civilians were killed in the war last year, according to the United Nations. Thousands of Afghan soldiers, police and Taliban were also killed.
Nevertheless, the Taliban leader vowed this month to sustain the fight until their objectives were reached.
In March, a draft agreement was reached on the withdrawal of foreign forces in exchange for a commitment by the Taliban to cut ties with militant groups such as al Qaeda.
A Taliban source said both sides were expecting some clarity and results on the prime issues in the new round talks.
“A ceasefire and intra-Afghan talks will not be discussed during the seventh round,” said the Taliban source, who declined to be identified.
Some Afghan government officials side fear the United States and the Taliban will strike a deal on the withdrawal of foreign forces, enabling the United States to get out of an unpopular war but leaving government forces to battle on alone.
(Additional reporting, writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Robert Birsel)