US and Taliban to start 'make or break' round of peace talks

The negotiations will be the seventh meeting since October as America seeks a way out of its longest war

In this photo taken on June 6, 2019, a US military Chinook helicopter lands on a field outside the governor's palace during a visit by the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller, and Asadullah Khalid, acting minister of defense of Afghanistan, in Maidan Shar, capital of Wardak province. A skinny tangle of razor wire snakes across the entrance to the Afghan army checkpoint, the only obvious barrier separating the soldiers inside from any Taliban fighters that might be nearby. - To go with 'AFGHANISTAN-CONFLICT-MILITARY-US,FOCUS' by Thomas WATKINS
 / AFP / THOMAS WATKINS / To go with 'AFGHANISTAN-CONFLICT-MILITARY-US,FOCUS' by Thomas WATKINS
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Negotiators for the United States and Taliban militants will start a seventh round of peace talks to end the war in Afghanistan on Saturday, offering what one US official called a “make-or-break moment” to halt 18 years of fighting.

US and Taliban officials privy to the talks said they will seek to finalise a schedule to withdraw foreign troops in return for a Taliban commitment to keep militant groups from using the country as a base to attack the United States and its allies.

Saturday's talks will be led by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US peace envoy for Afghanistan, who has held six rounds of talks with the Taliban in Qatar's capital of Doha since October.

“There is a genuine sense of expectation on both sides,” said a senior US official, who declined to be identified as he was not authorised to speak to media. "It's a make-or-break moment.”

The pace of talks between the US and Taliban has sped up as Afghanistan heads for presidential elections on September 28.

FILE - In this Feb. 8, 2019, file photo, Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad at the U.S. Institute of Peace, in Washington.  A fresh round of talks between the U.S. and the Taliban is to begin in Qatar Saturday, June 29, just days after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington is hoping for an Afghan peace agreement before Sept. 1. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

"This is one of the crucial meetings," a senior Taliban leader in Qatar said, on condition of anonymity.

"If we fail to find any solution to the Afghan conflict then we would like to negotiate with the elected representatives of the American people."

On a trip to Kabul this week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said America was close to finishing a draft agreement with the militants on counter-terrorism assurances, and he hoped a peace pact could be reached by September 1.

About 20,000 foreign troops, most of them American, are in Afghanistan as part of a US-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some US forces carry out counter-terrorism operations.

The Taliban, who control or contest half the country, more than at any time since they were ousted by the US invasion in 2001, do not support the election process.

They want to form an interim government, but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and leaders of opposition political parties have rejected the demand.

Mr Ghani, who has been sidelined from the talks, hopes the seventh round will open the door for an intra-Afghan meeting.

epa07674969 Afghan Taliban patrol in Waghaz district of Ghazni, Afghanistan, 26 June 2019. Commanders of the Taliban insurgency have threatened to attack media outlets and their staff throughout Afghanistan unless they stop airing advertisements critical with the radical militant group. The Islamist group, which has been engaged in a brutal struggle against the government in Kabul and the United States-led international coalition since the latter invaded Afghanistan in 2001, said it was closely monitoring all media outlets to ensure they complied with their demand  EPA/STRINGER

Germany, a key ally of the United States in Afghanistan, is trying to organise a meeting of the Taliban and civilian representatives.

Some Afghan officials fear the United States and the Taliban will strike a deal allowing America to exit the country, leaving government forces to battle on alone.

On Friday, the Afghan Defence Ministry said a senior Taliban governor was killed in an airstrike in the eastern province of Logar, and a commander was killed in clashes with Afghan security forces in northern Balkh province.

The Taliban dismissed the report about the death of the Logar governor as government propaganda, however.

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