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U.S. and Taliban Agree in Principle to Peace Framework, Envoy Says

KABUL, Afghanistan — American and Taliban officials have agreed in principle to the framework of a deal in which the insurgents would guarantee to prevent Afghan territory from being used by terrorists, and that could lead to a full pullout of American troops in return for larger concessions from the Taliban, the chief United States negotiator said Monday.

The American envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, said those concessions must include the Taliban’s agreeing to a cease-fire and to talk directly with the Afghan government, issues that the insurgents have doggedly opposed in the past.

“We have a draft of the framework that has to be fleshed out before it becomes an agreement,” Mr. Khalilzad said in an interview with The New York Times in Kabul. “The Taliban have committed, to our satisfaction, to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals.”

He added: “We felt enough confidence that we said we need to get this fleshed out, and details need to be worked out.”

After nine years of halting efforts to reach a peace deal with the Taliban, the draft framework, though preliminary, is the biggest tangible step toward ending a two-decade war that has cost tens of thousands of lives and profoundly changed American foreign policy.

A senior American official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations, said the Taliban delegation had asked for time to confer with their leadership about the American requirement for the insurgents’ agreement to direct Afghan talks and a cease-fire. The official described all those issues as “interconnected” as part of a “package deal” that was likened to a Russian nesting doll. The official’s account was supported by details that have been leaked by some Taliban and Western officials in recent days.

A senior Taliban official with direct knowledge of the talks on Monday confirmed the draft agreement on the issue of foreign troop withdrawal and that the Taliban pledge that Afghan soil would not be used against others. He said “working groups” would iron out details on the timeline of the withdrawal.

But in a sign that the conditions the Americans have tied the finalizing of the deal to may be difficult to reach, the Taliban official said he did not see the agreement as conditioned on a cease-fire or Taliban talking to the Afghan government. The official declined to say what the Taliban position on the latter two issues was.

Diplomats in Kabul aware of the way Mr. Khalilzad has characterized the progress in talks also said the American envoy was candid that the conditions they had laid to the Taliban before a deal could be finalized might prove difficult to agree to. Mr. Khalilzad had expressed that he was still seeking ways, including assistance from regional countries, to convince the Taliban to meet the Afghan side and agree to a cease-fire.

One diplomat said Mr. Khalilzad had suggested the idea of “freezing” the agreement on the two central issues and waiting for Taliban to deliver on the conditions laid out for finalizing it. But he also suggested that might test President Trump’s already waning patience.

Mr. Khalilzad returned to Afghanistan on Sunday to brief the government in Kabul after conducting six days of talks with the Taliban delegation in Doha, Qatar.

In an address to the nation after being briefed by Mr. Khalilzad, President Ashraf Ghani expressed concern that a peace deal would be rushed. He highlighted previous settlements that ended in bloodshed, including when the Soviet Union withdrew from the country in the late 1980s.

Despite a promise of a peace deal at the time, Afghanistan broke into anarchy, and years later the Afghan president who had been in charge during that transition, Najibullah, was hanged from a pole at a traffic roundabout.

“We want peace quickly, we want it soon, but we want it with prudence,” Mr. Ghani said. “Prudence is important so we do not repeat past mistakes.”

There is concern among senior Afghan officials about the fact that the Afghan government has still been sidelined from the talks. Officials close to Mr. Ghani say he is particularly concerned that the Americans might negotiate important agreements that Afghan officials are not party to, potentially including the shape of an interim government outside of elections. Mr. Ghani has repeatedly insisted that such details only be taken up in direct talks between the government and the Taliban.

Fueling Mr. Ghani’s suspicion is the circulation of a potential draft agreement written by a former American diplomat who had held several meetings with the Taliban before Mr.Khalilzad was appointed to the role.

The document was written by the former diplomat Laurel Miller for RAND, and a leaked draft of it has been circulating in Kabul. The draft says it tries to envision “as realistically as possible” what a final peace agreement could look like, and at the heart of it is the formation of a transitional government on interim basis that could include the Taliban as well. That transition authority would then pave the way for changing the Constitution and holding elections that would include the Taliban in some agreed-upon way.

Mr. Ghani, who is running for a second five-year term in elections now scheduled for July, has repeatedly lashed out against that idea.

“Afghans do not accept an interim government — not today, not tomorrow, not in a hundred years,” Mr. Ghani, a former academic, said last week. “Whoever comes up with such stupid ideas — a few former officials that I wouldn’t even accept as my students — should think again.”

On Monday, Mr. Khalilzad insisted that he was trying to push the Taliban to negotiate those points directly with the Afghan side.

“There are a lot of reports that we have discussed an interim government: No, I have not gotten into any of that discussion,” Mr. Khalilzad said. “I have not entered into what that could look like with the Taliban — they would like to talk to me about it, but I have not.”

During the talks last week, the Taliban signaled their seriousness by appointing one of their most powerful officials from the original movement, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, as their chief peace negotiator.

Though American and Afghan officials said that Mr. Baradar was not directly involved in the marathon meetings last week, with some sessions lasting as long as eight hours, he was expected to take the lead in the talks to come. The senior American officials said new high-level talks would start in late February, but suggested that teams from both sides could start on technical details before then.

The interview with Mr. Khalilzad on Monday was the first time that the American government had directly confirmed some details of the agreement taking shape.

As the first step in the framework, Mr. Khalilzad said that the Taliban were firm about agreeing to keep Afghan territory from being used as a staging ground for terrorism by groups like Al Qaeda and other international terrorists, and had agreed to provide guarantees and an enforcement mechanism for that promise.

That had long been a primary demand by American officials, in an effort to keep Afghanistan from reverting back to being the kind of terrorist base it had been at the war’s start, in 2001 after Al Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

The next set of contingencies laid out by the senior American official involved in the talks would see the United States agreeing to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan, but only in return for the Taliban’s entering talks with the Afghan government and agreeing to a lasting cease-fire.

Those last two points have long been resisted by Taliban officials, and could still provide trouble with the process, officials say. The Taliban delegation in Qatar said they had to break to discuss those details with their leadership.

But the agreement in principle to discussing them at all was seen as a breakthrough after years of failed attempts, American and Afghan officials said.

Source: NYT > World

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