US and Taleban agree in principle to peace framework, envoy says

US Marines prepare to fire on a Taliban position near Marja, Afghanistan, on Feb 17, 2010.
US Marines prepare to fire on a Taliban position near Marja, Afghanistan, on Feb 17, 2010.PHOTO: NYTIMES

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN (NYTIMES) - American and Taleban 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 US troops in return for larger concessions from the Taleban, the chief US negotiator said on Monday (Jan 28).

Mr Zalmay Khalilzad said those concessions must include the Taleban agreeing to a ceasefire 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," he said in an interview with The New York Times in Kabul.

"The Taleban 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 Taleban, the draft framework, though preliminary, is the biggest tangible step towards 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 Taleban delegation had asked for time to confer with their leadership about the US requirement for the insurgents' agreement to direct Afghan talks and a ceasefire.

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 Taleban and Western officials in recent days.

A senior Taleban official with direct knowledge of the talks on Monday confirmed the draft agreement on the issue of foreign troop withdrawal and the Taleban 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 finalising of the deal to may be difficult to reach, the Taleban official said he did not see the agreement as conditioned on a ceasefire or the Taleban talking to the Afghan government.

The official declined to say what the Taleban position on the latter two issues was.

Diplomats in Kabul aware of the way Mr Khalilzad has characterised the progress in talks also said the US envoy was candid that the conditions they had laid out to the Taleban before a deal could be finalised might prove difficult to agree to.

Mr Khalilzad had said that he was still seeking ways, including assistance from regional countries, to convince the Taleban to meet the Afghan side and agree to a ceasefire.

One diplomat said Mr Khalilzad had suggested the idea of "freezing" the agreement on the two central issues and waiting for Taleban to deliver on the conditions laid out for finalising it. But he also suggested that might test President Donald 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 Taleban 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, Mr Mohammad 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 Taleban.

Fuelling Mr Ghani's suspicion is the circulation of a potential draft agreement written by a former US diplomat who had held several meetings with the Taleban before Mr Khalilzad was appointed to the role.

The document was written by the former diplomat Laurel Miller for the RAND Corporation think tank, 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 Taleban as well.

That transition authority would then pave the way for changing the Constitution and holding elections that would include the Taleban 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 Taleban 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 Taleban - they would like to talk to me about it, but I have not."

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

Though US 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 US 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 the US government had directly confirmed some details of the agreement taking shape.

As the first step in the framework, Mr Khalilzad said that the Taleban 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 US 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 Taleban's entering talks with the Afghan government and agreeing to a lasting ceasefire.

Those last two points have long been resisted by Taleban officials, and could still provide trouble with the process, officials say.

The Taleban 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.