US negotiators to meet Taliban in Islamabad next week

The talks would come a week ahead of previously scheduled negotiations

epa07349793 (FILE) - Representatives of the Afghan Taliban movement (L-R) Mullah Abdul Salam Hanafi, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai and Mullah Shahabuddin Delawar attend the Afghanistan peace settlement talks on the level of deputy foreign ministers in Moscow, Russia, 09 November 2018 (reissued 07 February 2019). Media reports, quoting Taliban official Abdul Salam Hanafi, state that the US had promised the Taliban -- on the sidelines of a meeting between the Taliban and Afghan figures in Moscow -- to withdraw 50 percent of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of April. The US military denied an immediate troop withdrawal saying that no timeframe had been set, media added. The withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan was said to be a prerequisite for peace that Taliban leaders repeated during talks in Moscow.  EPA/SERGEI CHIRIKOV

Taliban 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, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Wednesday.

But a US State Department representative said in a statement that the United States had "not received a formal invitation to any talks."

The talks would 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 Taliban delegation would meet the US team, he did not specify any meetings with team head, US special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.

Mr 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 Taliban insurgents and foreign-backed Afghan forces before any agreement on the withdrawal of US-led foreign troops.

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

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

It is also pushing for the Taliban 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 Taliban would allow a reduction in the approximately 14,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan and a renewed "focus on counter terrorism."

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