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Monday, January 28, 2019, 10:33
Official: Next round of Afghan talks tentatively set for Feb 25
By Reuters
Monday, January 28, 2019, 10:33 By Reuters

In this photo released by Inter Services Public Relations of Pakistan's military, US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, left, talks with Pakistani Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, second from right, during a meeting in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Jan 17, 2019. (INTER SERVICES PUBLIC RELATIONS VIA AP)

DOHA — Another round of peace talks between Afghanistan's Taliban and the United States is tentatively set for Feb 25, a Qatari foreign ministry official said on Sunday, after a draft pact was reached to potentially end the United States' longest war. 

"Both parties agreed tentatively to reconvene on February 25th," the official told Reuters. 

Despite the presence of US-led foreign forces training, advising and assisting their Afghan counterparts, the Taliban controls nearly half of Afghanistan

The draft deal, agreed after six days of talks last week, stipulates that US troops would leave within 18 months of the agreement being signed, potentially ending the war more than 17 years after American-led forces invaded Afghanistan. 

READ MORE: US envoy claims 'significant progress' in talks with Taliban

According to Taliban sources, the hardline Islamic group gave assurances that Afghanistan will not be allowed to be used by al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants to attack the United States and its allies - a key early demand of Washington. 

The reported progress comes as the Taliban continues to stage near-daily attacks against the Western-backed Afghan government and its security forces. 

Meanwhile, US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad arrived in Kabul on Sunday to try to secure cooperation from Afghanistan's president after breakthroughs in peace negotiations with Taliban leaders in Qatar. 

With Khalilzad and his boss US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well Taliban officials, hailing progress towards ending America's longest war, he must now win over President Ashraf Ghani – whose government the Taliban have so far kept out of the process. 

The draft also includes assurances from Taliban that it will not allow Afghanistan to be used by al-Qaeda and Islamic State to attack the US and its allies – a core US demand. Similar assurances involving other groups are given to Pakistan in the draft pact. 

The Taliban also want to be part of an interim government after any ceasefire, Taliban sources said. 

ALSO READ: Afghan Taliban reject talks with US in Pakistan

It was not clear whether the draft described by the Taliban sources was acceptable to both sides or when it could be completed and signed. 

A fresh round of talks between Khalilzad and the Taliban is expected to take place on February 25 in Doha, two senior Taliban sources said. 

While he has not been directly involved up until now, Ghani's role is likely to grow as a full deal gets closer and diplomacy intensifies. 

Without going into detail on Saturday night, Khalilzad said in tweets that nothing could be agreed without an intra-Afghan dialogue and a full ceasefire. 

"He (Khalilzad) will inform Ghani and his officials about all the developments, seek their opinion before travelling back to Washington," a senior Afghan official said on conditions of anonymity. 

Khalilzad is also due to brief top regional diplomats on Monday morning. 

GHANI'S OPTIONS 

Western diplomats describe Ghani as being in a tight spot, with no authority to decide on the troop departure and the final decision to declare the ceasefire resting with the Taliban. 

He, however does enjoy the power to decide to support an interim government rather than push for presidential elections which could prove to be a distraction to the peace effort. 

So far he has rejected talk of an interim government. "It is time for Ghani to choose between elections or peace process," said a western diplomat based in Kabul. 

Despite the progress on a pact, violence is widely expected to continue, with the Taliban mounting daily attacks against the Afghan government and its security forces. 

The Taliban now control about half of Afghanistan's territory and Ghani said in Switzerland last week that 45,000 members of the country's security forces had been killed since he took office in 2014. 

A former Taliban leader said despite a agreement for an 18-month withdrawal, he predicted intense fighting ahead. 

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