Taliban claims half of US troops will leave Afghanistan as soon as May

The militants continue to insist upon the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan as a first step in the peace process

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Free Liberty.

Taliban representatives and an Afghan delegation led by former President Hamid Karzai have held a second and final day of talks in Moscow, with the militants continuing to insist upon the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan as a first step in the peace process.

The talks were “very satisfactory” Karzai said at the end of the February 5-6 talks, which have been described by some as part of an “intra-Afghan” peace process — despite the absence of Kabul government representatives.

The gathering has been criticized by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

It comes as broader peace talks involving the Taliban’s political office in the Qatari capital, Doha, appear to be gaining momentum, despite the Taliban’s continued refusal to meet directly with Afghan government representatives.

President Donald Trump during his State of the Union address on February 6 described those talks as “constructive” and voiced cautious hope for a negotiated end to the United States’ longest war.

Karzai said the main issue under discussion in Moscow was that Afghanistan should be free of foreign forces, adding that there was a near consensus on this matter.

Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the head of the 10-member Taliban delegation in Moscow, said that the two days of talks with Afghan politicians were “very successful.”

“We agreed on many points and I am hopeful that in future, we can succeed further, and finally we can reach a solution, we can find a complete peace in Afghanistan,” he told reporters.

He also said that the time of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan was not fixed yet and that negotiations on the matter were in progress.

“We insist that U.S. troops must go as soon as possible and we are in talks with the U.S.,” Stanikzai said.

Earlier in the day, a member of the Taliban delegation, Abdul Salam Hanefi, was quoted as claiming that Washington agreed during a recent round of talks in Doha to withdraw half its ground troops by the end of April — saying the process had already begun.

But Hanefi later denied that he had made the comment, saying, “Until now we did not agree” on a U.S. withdrawal.

A U.S. State Department spokeswoman said that Washington had “not agreed to any timeline” for a possible drawdown of troops, according to the Reuters news agency.

“If all parties do what is necessary to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a platform for terrorism, as conditions allow we are willing to look at changes in force presence,” the spokeswoman added.

U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has repeatedly said that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. ‘Everything’ must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive cease-fire.”

General Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, also said that the Afghan government must be involved in talks if a push for a peace deal is to be successful.

“Ultimately, we need to get to a Taliban-Afghanistan discussion,” Votel told U.S. lawmakers on February 5. “Only they will be able to resolve the key issues involved in the dispute.”

Ghani spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo late on February 5. Pompeo “underscored the central importance of ensuring the centrality of the Afghan government in the peace process,” Ghani said.

The Moscow meeting is “nothing more than a fantasy. No one can decide without the consent of the Afghan people,” Ghani separately told Afghan broadcaster Tolo News.

“Those who have gathered in Moscow have no executive authority. They can say what they want,” the Afghan president added.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.

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