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Taliban Say Withdrawal Discussed at Meeting with U.S.; Afghan Officials Deny

Afghan security personnel stand guard as black smoke rises from the Intercontinental Hotel after a Taliban attack, in Kabul on Jan. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

WASHINGTON — The Taliban said the terror group met with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad on Friday in Qatar, and though Washington hasn’t confirmed the meeting the Afghan government said today that the parties didn’t talk about a troop pullout despite Taliban assertions.

Khalilzad, a former UN ambassador in the Bush administration, was in Kabul on Monday in an effort to broker a deal with the Taliban. “His mission there is to coordinate our U.S. efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table,” State Department press secretary Heather Nauert told reporters last week. “This is still Afghan-led, Afghan-owned. Our policy has not changed in any way, but we’re proud and pleased to have him out there advocating on this behalf and we’ll be working in close coordination with the Afghan government.”

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the Doha discussion was “about ending occupation and working towards finding a peaceful resolution to the Afghan conflict.”

“The representatives of the Islamic Emirate identified presence of foreign forces as the greatest obstacle obstructing true peace and solving problems, adding that Afghanistan is an Islamic country and has its own Islamic values and culture. Keeping that in mind, efforts must be made towards a true and intra-Afghan solution,” Mujahid said Saturday. “At the end both sides agreed to continue holding meetings in the future.”

Last year, Trump had requested that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani shut down the Taliban’s Qatar “political office,” as the group calls it.

Taliban attacks in Afghanistan have continued unabated, with the terror group trying to disrupt parliamentary elections and dozens of Afghan police killed in a pair of Taliban attacks Sunday and today. Despite attacks that have included spraying guests of Kabul’s Intercontinental hotel with bullets in a coordinated January assault, the Trump administration, like its predecessors, has not formally designated the Taliban a terrorist group so that it can conduct negotiations with them.

A Monday Taliban statement called the Qatar meeting “a pivotal path to reaching an understanding and attaining peace that has absorbed the attention of everyone” and said the White House action reflected a “rational decision and a lesson learnt.”

“It would have been much better if the American officials had responded positively to the peaceful solution presented by the Islamic Emirate years earlier in order to have prevented the indiscriminate slaughter and loss of life that has occurred during this war. But as the American officials have made their intentions clear about peace now, it’s still not too late,” the statement added. “The Islamic Emirate welcomes every development that results in ending the occupation and military catastrophe unfolding in Afghanistan and safeguards the greatest aspiration of the Afghans (Islamic government) alongside their lives, wealth and honor.”

According to Afghanistan’s TOLO News, Ghani adviser Mohammad Akram Khpalwak, head secretary of the High Peace Council, said at a conference today, “It is said that the Taliban and the United States discussed the withdrawal of foreign forces; I completely reject this issue, it has not been discussed.”

He acknowledged that the two main Taliban demands are the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the release of their prisoners.

HPC deputy head Attaurrahman Salim told TOLO that “the withdrawal of forces is an issue that can be discussed after the establishment of security and the end of the war, and it should be discussed nationally.”

Salim said the Taliban want to use a promise of U.S. withdrawal “as a propaganda subject, while there are other issues that should come first.”