US negotiators to meet Taleban delegation in Islamabad on Feb 18, says Taleban spokesman

Former Taleban militants surrender their weapons during a reconciliation ceremony in Herat, Feb 5, 2019.
Former Taleban militants surrender their weapons during a reconciliation ceremony in Herat, Feb 5, 2019.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KABUL (REUTERS) - Taleban negotiators will meet their US counterparts on Feb 18 in Pakistan's capital Islamabad as part of accelerating diplomacy to end more than 17 years of war in Afghanistan, Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Wednesday (Feb 13).

The talks come a week ahead of previously scheduled negotiations between the two sides in Qatar on Feb 25.

Mujahid said in a statement that the Qatar talks would still take place as scheduled.

Mujahid said his side would also meet Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan to hold "comprehensive discussions about Pakistan-Afghanistan relations".

While he said the Taleban delegation would meet the US team, he did not specify any meetings with team head, US special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.

Khalilzad is due in Pakistan ahead of the Qatar talks as part of a six-country swing through Europe and the Middle East as he tries to build support for efforts to end America's longest war.

Both the hardline Islamist movement and the United States hailed progress after the end of the last round of negotiations in Qatar last month but Western diplomats familiar with discussions say that many tough hurdles lie ahead.

The US side is expected to push hard for a ceasefire between Taleban insurgents and foreign-backed Afghan forces before any agreement on the withdrawal of US-led foreign troops.

Taleban officials say they want all foreign troops out before a ceasefire, but would still welcome non-military foreign help to rebuild the country.

Washington is also seeking more details on fresh assurances from the Taleban that it would not allow Afghanistan to be used by groups such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to attack the United States and its allies, Western diplomats said.

It is also pushing hard for the Taleban to talk to the Afghan government, which it has so far shut out of talks, branding it as a puppet of Washington.

US President Donald Trump used his State of the Union address last week to say progress in negotiations with the Taleban would allow a reduction in the approximately 14,000 US troops currently in Afghanistan and a renewed "focus on counter terrorism."