KABUL: The US special envoy to Afghanistan on Thursday denied Taliban claims of a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops.
Senior Taliban negotiator Abdul Salam Hanafi said that US diplomats had agreed to remove half of the 14,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of April and that the withdrawal process had already begun.
US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad denied this assertion, tweeting: “I’ve heard some Taliban officials claim we have a troop withdrawal timetable for Afghanistan ... To be clear, no troop withdrawal timetable exists.”
There were six days of peace talks in Doha — where Hanafi said the timetable had been set — but there have also been talks elsewhere as the insurgents meet top officials from Asia, Europe and beyond to reach a political settlement aimed at ending the war.
The Taliban refuses to meet the Afghan government, dismissing it a puppet of the West, and insists that foreign troops must leave the country.
Hanafi made the troop withdrawal claim in Moscow, where Taliban delegates held talks with prominent Afghan politicians. Kabul objected to the meeting, with one army general describing at as a “white coup” against the government.
“It was like a white coup and a warning for Ghani. His rivals, influential politicians and power brokers had taken part in it and agreed on certain things,” one army general who served in Ghani’s administration told Arab News, requesting anonymity.
“Ghani seems to be left alone and will be dealt with in future talks as one side to the conflict rather than as a government.”
The Taliban’s top negotiator in Moscow Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai said after the meeting that there would be no cease-fire until the withdrawal of foreign troops.
The sides agreed on an assurance to the international community that Afghanistan would not be used as a terror base against any other nation, and that women had the right to education and work in line with Islamic principles.
They “called for the protection of freedom of speech in line with Islamic principles, and to undertake efforts to attract international assistance for the reconstruction of Afghanistan’s infrastructure.”
They also agreed for the next intra-Afghan meeting to be held in Doha, with some pushing for the participation of Ghani’s government. Some at the Moscow meeting demanded the formation of an interim government to replace Ghani instead of holding presidential elections in July.
The presidential palace in Kabul said the Moscow moot was a futile exercise. In a short statement issued late Wednesday, the government said the talks “hold no weight” as delegates attending the meeting in Moscow had no executive authority and that the gathering was only political and academic talks.
The Moscow gathering was considered a blow to Ghani, as various factions and ethnic groups had put aside their differences in his absence.
Analyst Ahmad Shuja referred to the remarks of US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, who emphasized the importance of intra-Afghan-dialogue and for the creation of “conditions for the government, other leaders and Taliban to sit together and negotiate a peaceful settlement.”
Shuja saw Pompeo’s comments as a change in stance from the US.
“The US emphasizes intra-Afghan dialogue, but does not assert the Afghan government’s leading role in the peace process. The US treats the Afghan government as a member of one of the groups engaged during the talks,” he told Arab News.
Those in the six-day Doha meeting included former President Hamid Karzai, Ghani’s key challenger in presidential elections, former Interior Minister Haneef Atmar, regional power brokers and technocrats.
Trump has repeatedly spoken about the need for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, where it has been bogged down in a conflict with the Taliban and other groups since late 2001.
He appointed Khalilzad to engage with the Taliban in order to find a negotiated settlement.