KABUL, Afghanistan — A U.S. envoy showed the draft of a U.S.-Taliban agreement to Afghan leaders on Monday after declaring they were “at the threshold” of a deal to end America’s longest war, officials said.
However, reflecting the sensitivity of the U.S.-Taliban negotiations and the Afghan government’s sidelined role in the talks so far, it was not clear whether the draft was actually given to President Ashraf Ghani and his team.
Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad met twice with Ghani after arriving Sunday evening from Qatar, where the ninth round of U.S.-Taliban talks ended without a final agreement.
President Donald Trump said he plans to withdraw thousands of U.S. forces from Afghanistan if, but will keep 8,600 there for the foreseeable future, pending the outcome of U.S. peace talks with the Taliban, which appear to be concluding.
Presidential spokesman Sediq Seddiqi told reporters the government would study the deal to make sure it addresses the goals of a lasting cease-fire and direct talks with the Taliban in the near future. “It will take couple of days, probably, that we will get back to them and give them our observations,” he said.
A deal on ending nearly 18 years of fighting is closer to reality even as the Taliban attacked the capitals of Kunduz and Baghlan provinces in the north over the weekend. Violence continued in Kunduz on Monday as a suicide bomber targeted a police checkpoint and killed at least four officers and wounded 17 people, including 10 civilians, said provincial health director Esanullah Fazeli.
The Afghan government has been shut out of the U.S.-Taliban negotiations as the militant group dismisses it as a U.S. puppet, but intra-Afghan talks that include the government are meant to follow a U.S.-Taliban deal.
The government says its negotiating team is ready but refuses to say who is on it.
The Taliban are at their strongest since the U.S.-led invasion to topple their government after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. They want all of the estimated 20,000 U.S. and NATO forces to leave Afghanistan and already portray their departure as the insurgents’ victory. “We are on the verge of ending the invasion and reaching a peaceful solution for Afghanistan,” the Taliban spokesman in Qatar, Suhail Shaheen, said over the weekend.
For its part, the U.S. seeks Taliban assurances that Afghanistan will not be a safe haven for extremist groups to plan and launch global terror attacks.
The president said he wants to bring most U.S. troops home, but still maintain some presence in the war-torn country.
The militant group, which now controls or holds sway over roughly half of Afghanistan, has stepped up attacks in recent months to strengthen its negotiating position. The United Nations and others say civilians have suffered, often caught in the cross-fire as government forces, backed by the U.S., have pursued the militants with airstrikes and raids. Afghanistan was the world’s deadliest conflict in 2018.
A U.S. official with Khalilzad’s negotiation team has said that “any potential peace deal will not be based on blind trust, but will instead contain clear commitments that are subject to our monitoring and verification.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
The official added that a deal would lead to “intra-Afghan negotiations where the Taliban will sit with other Afghans and together they will commit to a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire.”
Unrest continued Monday outside the Baghlan capital of Puli Khumri as the Taliban blocked the main road leading south to Kabul with fuel tanker trucks, opening fire on any security forces that tried to approach, provincial council member Mabobullah Ghafari told The Associated Press.
The Taliban also blocked the two main highways heading north from Puli Khumri as gun battles continued, he said. The situation inside the city was calm but residents remained fearful of attack, he added.
At least 47 wounded people had been taken to hospitals since the attack began on Sunday morning, said Jawed Basharat, spokesman for the provincial police chief.
The interior ministry said at least 51 Taliban fighters, seven civilians and six members of security forces had been killed, and said the Taliban soon would be eliminated from the area.
Separately on Sunday night, six pro-government soldiers were killed and three were wounded when Taliban fighters ambushed their patrol in Qarabagh district of eastern Ghazni province, said Arif Noori, spokesman for the governor.
Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Guelph, Canada, contributed to this report.