Taliban, US agree to draft deal that would withdraw foreign forces from Afghanistan

Reuters is reporting that Taliban officials say they have reached a draft deal with US negotiators to withdraw all foreign forces from Afghanistan in 18 months.

US special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad would not confirm a draft deal was in place, saying only that "significant progress" had been made.

While no joint statement was issued, Khalilzad tweeted later that the talks had made “significant progress” and would resume shortly, adding that he planned to travel to Afghanistan to meet government officials.

“Meetings here (in Qatar) were more productive than they have been in the past. We have made significant progress on vital issues,” he wrote, adding that numerous issues still needed work.

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and everything must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive ceasefire,” he wrote in the tweets.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday wrote on Twitter that he had received “encouraging news” from Khalilzad about the talks.

“The U.S. is serious about pursuing peace, preventing #Afghanistan from continuing to be a space for international terrorism & bringing forces home,” Pompeo tweeted. He did not give a timetable for the potential withdrawal of U.S. forces.

A Taliban statement issued later also noted progress on troop withdrawal and other issues but said more negotiations and internal consultations were required.

“The policy of the Islamic Emirate during talks was very clear — until the issue of withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan is agreed upon, progress in other issues is impossible,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, using another name the group calls itself.

This is clearly the most important progress toward withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan that has been made to date. The Taliban has refused to talk to the Afghan government until negotiations with the US have been concluded. They are not going to like some of what the US and the Taliban are talking about.

According to the sources, the hard-line 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.

They said the deal included a ceasefire provision but they had yet to confirm a timeline and would only open talks with Afghan representatives once a truce was implemented.

The government of President Afrash Ghani may not like it, but they will have very little to say in the matter if the US withdraws its forces. The Taliban already control half the country and the government is losing ground all the time.

Otherwise, there are some key ingredients in the deal:

The Taliban sources said other clauses in the draft include an agreement over the exchange and release of prisoners, the removal of an international travel ban on several Taliban leaders by Washington and the prospect of an interim Afghan government after the ceasefire is struck.

The suggestion to appoint an interim government in Afghanistan comes as top politicians including Ghani have filed their nominations for the presidential polls in July. Ghani has repeatedly rejected the offer to agree to the formation of an interim government.

The Taliban sources also confirmed provisions in the draft that have broader implications for Afghanistan’s ties with its neighbors, particularly Pakistan, India and China.

They said the deal included provisions that separatist militants from Balochistan, a resource-rich southwestern Pakistani province, will not be allowed to use Afghan soil to target Pakistan.

If the Taliban deny AQ and ISIS from using Afghanistan as a base, that would be a minimum requirement for a US withdrawal. We are not likely to get any assurances about the composition of an interim Afghan government following our withdrawal, nor will we be able to get the Taliban to withdraw from any territory they already occupy.

So after 17 years of spending blood and treasure in Afghanistan, is this the best we can do? Many who served there might not think so and to them, the outline of this deal, if it is finalized, would be a bitter pill.