WASHINGTON The Taliban said on Saturday they had made substantial headway in negotiations to end the 17-year US war in Afghanistan, although sticking points remained.
Zalmay Khalilzad, who was named by President Donald Trump's administration to find a way out of the war, held an unusually long six days of talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar, reported international media.
"Meetings here were more productive than they have been in the past. We made significant progress on vital issues," Khalilzad wrote on Twitter. Khalilzad -- who headed to Qatar after talks in Afghanistan and its key neighbours -- said he was returning to Kabul to discuss the negotiations. "We will build on the momentum and resume talks shortly. We have a number of issues left to work out," he tweeted.
"Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and 'everything' must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive ceasefire." While he has not given details, floated proposals include a withdrawal by the United States of its troops in return for Taliban guarantees not to shelter foreign extremists -- the initial reason for the US intervention.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later tweeted he had heard "encouraging news" from Khalilzad. "The US is serious about pursuing peace, preventing #Afghanistan from continuing to be a space for international terrorism & bringing forces home," he added.
"Working with the Afghan gov't & all interested parties, the US seeks to strengthen Afghan sovereignty, independence & prosperity." Trump has been eager to end America's longest war, which was launched shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Trump has already said he will pull half of the 14,000 US troops from Afghanistan.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said that while there was "progress" at the meetings, reports of an agreement on a ceasefire and talks with Kabul "are not true." "Since issues are of critical nature and need comprehensive discussions, therefore it was decided that talks about unresolved matters will resume in similar future meetings," he said in a statement.
The Taliban have so far refused to hold direct talks with Afghan officials, whom they dismiss as "puppets". They say they will only begin negotiations with the government once a firm date for the withdrawal of US troops has been agreed.
But a senior Taliban commander sounded optimistic after the talks with the Afghan-born Khalilzad, who played key diplomatic roles in former president George W. Bush's administration.
"The US has accepted many of our demands and both sides are very much agreed on major points, but some points are still under discussion," the Taliban commander said on condition of anonymity by phone from Pakistan. We are moving forward and a lot of progress has been made so far. Efforts are underway to find some middle ground to solve the remaining disputed issues. The Afghan government is one of them," he added.
Qatar's Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim al-Thani also hailed the dialogue, tweeting: "This progress marks a significant step in the history of peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan."
The Taliban in the past have refused to deal with the internationally recognised government of President Ashraf Ghani. The length and apparent breadth of the Taliban talks are unprecedented, signalling that both the United States and the Taliban see a path forward.
In a sign of the seriousness, the Taliban appointed a co-founder of the hardline movement as its Qatar-based negotiator with the United States -- Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Khalilzad last met with the insurgents last month in the United Arab Emirates, which has jockeyed with Qatar for influence in Afghan diplomatic circles.
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