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US envoy in Pakistan ahead of key Taliban talks

August 1, 2019

ISLAMABAD (AP) — The United States peace envoy to Afghanistan met with Pakistan’s prime minister and other top officials ahead of his flight to Qatar for a crucial round of peace talks with the Taliban.

Before landing in Islamabad, Zalmay Khalilzad had hinted that a peace agreement could be reached in the next round of talks, potentially delivering an end to the nearly 18-year war in Afghanistan, America’s longest.

“In Doha, if the Taliban do their part, we will do ours, and conclude the agreement we have been working on,” he tweeted Wednesday, adding that he was, “Wrapping up my most productive visit to #Afghanistan since I took this job as Special Rep.”

The Taliban have been holding peace talks with the U.S. for nearly a year but have refused to recognize the Kabul government, viewing it as an American puppet. The insurgents effectively control around half the country and continue to carry out daily attacks on Afghan security forces.

The U.S. and the Taliban appear to be closing in on an agreement whereby American forces would withdraw from Afghanistan in return for guarantees that the country won’t be used as a launch-pad for international terror attacks.

Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman in Doha, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the upcoming talks would be to “finalize the agreement.”

Even as the U.S. plans its withdrawal strategy, the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces are losing troops at the fastest rate in years, according to Washington’s watchdog on the billions of dollars the U.S. spends in Afghanistan. For the fourth quarter in a row, Afghan troop levels were at their lowest levels since 2015, when the U.S. and NATO Resolute Support mission began, according to the quarterly report from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.

The U.S. has lost more than 2,400 soldiers in its longest war, and has spent more than $900 billion on everything from military operations to the construction of roads, bridges and power plants.

Khalilzad has held a series of meetings with Pakistani and Afghan officials over the past several months to brief them about the outcome of his meetings with the Taliban, who are talking to prominent Afghans in Kabul.

The most recent such talks among Afghans were held in July in Doha. The Taliban have said that once reach an agreement with the U.S., they would be open to intra-Afghan talks, but any government representatives would have to participate in a personal capacity.

In the Afghan capital, Kabul, a bomb killed two policemen near a checkpoint on Thursday, said Nasrat Rahimi, an interior ministry spokesman. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but both the Taliban and the Islamic State group are active in Kabul and regularly target government forces, officials and civilians in the Afghan capital.

In western Herat province, Shandand district chief Hekmatullah Hekmat said two women and a child were killed by crossfire between two rival Taliban groups.

A roadside bomb also tore through a bus in western Afghanistan on Wednesday, killing at least 32 people.

The Taliban denied involvement in the attack. IS has been active in Herat, where it has attacked Shiites, including a bombing of a Shiite mosque in 2017 that killed more than 40.

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Gannon reported from New York. Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez contributed to this report from Kabul, Afghanistan.

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