KABUL • United States and Taleban negotiators are close to a deal that would open the way for peace in Afghanistan, a top US official said yesterday, as the insurgents followed their weekend assault on the strategic centre of Kunduz by attacking a second northern city.
Mr Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born US diplomat overseeing negotiations for Washington, said that a deal was near after wrapping up the ninth round of talks with Taleban officials in Qatar.
"We are at the threshold of an agreement that will reduce violence and open the door for Afghans to sit together to negotiate an honourable and sustainable peace and a unified, sovereign Afghanistan that does not threaten the United States, its allies, or any other country," he said in a Twitter post.
The comment came as Taleban fighters attacked Pul-e Khumri city in the northern province of Baghlan just a day after a major show of strength by hundreds of fighters who overran parts of Kunduz, a strategic city the insurgents have twice come close to taking in recent years.
The Afghan Interior Ministry said in a statement yesterday that 20 Afghan security force members and five civilians were killed, and at least 85 civilians were injured in Kunduz during clashes with the Taleban fighters.
With talks in Doha, Qatar, close to wrapping up, the latest fighting underlined the Taleban's apparent determination to go into any deal from a position of strength on the battlefield.
Mr Khalilzad gave no details of the deal, which is expected to see thousands of US troops withdrawn from Afghanistan in exchange for guarantees by the Taleban not to allow the country to be used as a base for militant attacks abroad.
Mr Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taleban's political office in Doha, said both sides were in discussions to finalise technical issues. "We are on the verge of ending the invasion and reaching a peaceful solution for Afghanistan," he said on Twitter.
The agreement would not on its own end the fighting between the Taleban and Afghan security forces, but would allow the start of so-called "intra-Afghan" peace talks, which are expected to be held in the Norwegian capital of Oslo.
But it was not clear whether the Taleban would agree to talk directly with the Western-backed government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, which it considers an illegitimate foreign-imposed regime.
Some Taleban officials have said they would agree to talk to Afghan officials only in a private capacity, not as representatives of the state, and they remain opposed to a presidential election scheduled for Sept 28.
It was also unclear whether the agreement would cover the full withdrawal of all 14,500 US troops from Afghanistan or how long a pullout would take.
Over 20,000 foreign troops are in the country, most serving as part of a Nato-led mission to train and assist Afghan forces. Thousands of US troops are also engaged in a separate counter-terrorism mission fighting militant groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Suicide bombings and combat operations have continued throughout the talks and the fighting in the north underlined the vulnerability of large parts of Afghanistan, where the Taleban controls more territory than at any time since being overthrown by a US-led campaign in 2001.