Hopes of US troops’ exit from Afghanistan dashed

Talks on a pact that would allow the United States to end its longest war and withdraw troops from Afghanistan have ended without agreement and both sides saying they would consult their leaders on the next steps.

Held in Qatar since late last year, the talks have brought hopes for a deal allowing US troops to leave in exchange for a Taliban promise that Afghanistan will not be used by Islamist militants as a base from which to plot attacks abroad.

But the US is also pushing for Taliban agreement on two other, more far-reaching elements: power-sharing talks with Afghanistan’s US-backed government and a ceasefire.

The eighth round of talks, which began on August 3 and focused on technical details, ended on Monday, local time, according to Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.

“We prolonged our meeting with the hope of reaching a peace agreement but it could not happen,” said a member of the Taliban negotiating team in Qatar. “We discussed a number of issues and developed consensus on some of them but couldn’t reach a conclusion,” said the official, who declined to be identified.

The American negotiators demanded that the Taliban announce a ceasefire and start direct talks with the Kabul government, the Taliban official said.

The Taliban, fighting since their own government was toppled in 2001 to expel foreign forces and establish an Islamic state, responded by calling for the US to announce a roadmap for the withdrawal of their forces, he said.

The chief US negotiator, veteran Afghan-American diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, said this round of talks had concluded and he was on his way back to Washington for consultations.

“They were productive,” he said of the talks, in a post on Twitter.

Neither side said when the talks would resume.

An agreement would allow US President Donald Trump to achieve his aim of ending a war launched in the days after the September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on the United States.

The war has become a stalemate, with neither side able to defeat the other and casualties rising among civilians as well as combatants as violence surges.

Without a Taliban commitment to power-sharing talks and a ceasefire, there are fears the insurgents will fight on when US forces leave in a bid to overthrow the government.

Further complicating the negotiations, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States has raised the possibility his country might redeploy troops from the Afghanistan border to the Kashmir frontier.

Such a possibility, coming just as Pakistan’s long-standing Kashmir crisis with India has escalated, could add a new surprise element to the peace negotiations, The New York Times reported.

Pakistan’s ambassador, Asad Majeed Khan, emphasised the Kashmir and Afghanistan issues were separate but India’s crackdown on the disputed region on Pakistan’s eastern border “could not have come at a worse time for us.” Pakistan has strengthened military control along the border with Afghanistan, an area long infiltrated by Taliban militants, as part of the effort to help end the Afghanistan conflict by denying the group a haven.

The Afghan government has not been involved in the talks. The Taliban refuse to recognise or negotiate with it.

President Ashraf Ghani appeared to question the talks on Sunday, saying his nation would decide its future, not outsiders.

Ghani also told a gathering for prayers marking the Eid al-Adha Muslim festival that a presidential election, scheduled for September 28, in which he hopes to win a second term is essential.

The Taliban have denounced the election as a sham and threatened to attack rallies. There has been speculation the vote could be postponed if the US struck the deal with the militants.