US and Taliban refine Afghan troop withdrawal plan ahead of peace conference

Negotiators trying to finalise pullout schedule and Taliban guarantee not to allow terrorist groups

FILE In this file photo taken on Tuesday, May 28, 2019, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group's top political leader, third from left, arrives with other members of the Taliban delegation for talks in Moscow, Russia. The seventh and latest round of peace talks between the U.S. and Taliban is "critical," said Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen on Sunday June 30, 2019, the second day of talks with Washington's peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in the Mideastern state of Qatar, where the militant group maintains a political office. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
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Taliban and US negotiators are working to finalise the terms of the withdrawal of American and Nato troops ahead of a peace conference starting on Sunday, according to officials with knowledge of the ongoing talks.

The spokesman for the Taliban's political office in Qatar, where the talks are being held, said there had been "some progress" as the two sides work on a draft agreement to end 18 years of war.

"The talks are continuing and they will continue tomorrow as well," Suhail Shaheen to Associated Press on Thursday, the sixth day of direct talks between the insurgents and US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.

The Taliban spokesman previously said that a draft agreement was being rewritten to include agreed-upon clauses. On Thursday he said the two sides had broadened their discussion, without elaborating.

The draft plan includes a Taliban guarantee that it will not allow Afghan territory to be used for terrorism – the trigger for the war in 2011 as US-led forces invaded in pursuit of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks.

Taliban officials told AP that the US was seeking up to 18 months to complete a troop withdrawal, while  US President Donald Trump told Fox News earlier this week that a withdrawal had already quietly begun and that troop strength had been cut to 9,000. The president's statement was contradicted by a senior US official, who said the force strength remained at about 14,000.

Mr Trump's eagerness to pull out has strengthened the position of the Taliban, who effectively control half the country and won a key concession in the planning of the peace gathering, which will include no official delegation from the Afghan government.

Mr Khalilzad said the meeting on Sunday and Monday was "an essential element of the four-part peace framework and an important step in advancing the Afghan peace process".

Germany and Qatar, who are co-sponsoring the meeting and issuing the invitations, said participants will attend "only in their personal capacity", a condition President Ashraf Ghani has opposed. He has made no comment on Sunday's meeting.

The Taliban refuse to talk to Mr Ghani's government, calling it a US puppet, but have said government officials can attend the conference as private citizens.

In a tweet on Wednesday, the Taliban spokesman said 60 people would attend the peace gathering.

Atta-ul-Rahman Salim, deputy head of a government-appointed peace council, said the delegation from Kabul will include a cross-section of Afghanistan's civil society, including women's rights activists.

"It is a good first step to hear each other's side," he said.

Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who attended two previous meetings with the Taliban in Moscow, told Associated Press he would not be attending the Doha gathering because he will be in China. But, he added, "I fully support the coming intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha and am in the picture."