Afghanistan: Expectations surge ahead of new US-Taliban talks

KABUL, Feb 25 (NNN-AGENCIES) – The US and the Taliban are meeting in
Qatar for fresh talks Monday seeking an end to 17 years of grinding conflict
in Afghanistan, with the stakes ratcheting higher as the spring fighting
season approaches.

Marathon talks held in Doha last month have stoked hopes of a breakthrough after the two sides walked away with a “draft framework” that included a Taliban commitment to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for international terror groups.

It was the most substantial engagement by Washington with the militants
since US forces ousted them from power in 2001.

But there is still no accord on a timetable for a US withdrawal or a
ceasefire — both major issues on which previous efforts have foundered.

This time Washington’s special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has spearheaded the months-long effort, is expected to face an expanded Taliban negotiating team headed by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban’s former deputy minister of foreign affairs.

Neither side has stated how long they expect the meetings to last or the
details of what will be discussed.

US President Donald Trump’s apparent eagerness to end America’s longest
war, the Afghan government’s fear of being sidelined, and the coming of
spring all weigh on the process.

The gathering momentum has spurred fresh peace demonstrations and cautious hope in Afghanistan.

But there is also growing unease, with fears the government is being
pushed aside and that progress which many Afghans have paid for with their lives could yet be undone if the US rushes for the exits.

The Taliban have steadfastly refused to negotiate with Kabul, whom they
dismiss as “puppets”. They have also stated that, without a withdrawal
timetable, further progress is “impossible”.

Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are also
playing a role in negotiations, as Russia and China watch closely, and many
observers fear regional disputes could yet derail the process.

Pakistan, which has long wielded influence over the militants and been
seen as key to any peace push, has already suggested that soaring tensions
with its nuclear arch-rival India could disrupt the talks.

The talks have been buttressed by heavy snowfall across Afghanistan,
sharply reducing fighting and providing much-needed space for negotiations. — NNN-AGENCIES


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