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Major Progress Seen in US-Taliban Talks

Islamist group claims responsibility for massive suicide bombing that rocks Kabul

[Islamabad] Despite a possible agreement in principle on a partial US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban have claimed responsibility for a deadly suicide car bombing that jolted central Kabul late Monday night.

The huge explosion took place shortly after Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for talks with the Taliban, met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in the capital city to discuss progress.

The blast occurred inside the so-called Green Village compound, where several international organizations and embassies, including those of the US and UK, are located.

Zabiullah Mujahid, chief spokesman for the Taliban, tweeted that foreign forces were the target. A car bomber blew himself up and multiple fighters stormed the compound, Mujahid said.

Interior Ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahmi confirmed that at least 16 civilians were killed and some were 120 wounded, saying the toll could rise because scores of residential buildings had been destroyed. Most of the victims were women and children.

Five Taliban members were killed by security forces, Rahmi added.

Afghan presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi confirmed that immediately after arriving from Doha, Qatar, on Sunday evening following the ninth round of talks held over the course of 10 months, Khalilzad met with Ghani to brief him. On Monday, the two men and their staffs held a larger meeting.

The Doha talks have been focusing on the withdrawal of American troops in exchange for a Taliban guarantee not to allow militant groups to use Afghan soil to plot terrorist attacks against the US or its allies anywhere in the world. A withdrawal would end 18 years of direct military involvement in Afghanistan by Washington.

In an interview with TOLOnews, Afghanistan’s first 24/7 news channel, the US envoy said he had “reached an agreement with the Taliban in principle, but of course until the US president agrees with it, it is not final.”

Speaking in Dari, a dialect of Persian spoken in Afghanistan, Khalilzad said that as part of the proposed agreement, 5,000 American troops would withdraw from five bases within 135 days of a final deal. There are between 13,000 and 14,000 US troops in the country today.

Khalilzad added that the first stage also calls for the Kabul and Parwan provinces to remain violence-free. The largest US military facility in Afghanistan, Bagram Air Base, is located in Parwan province.

He added that a return by force of an “Islamic emirate,” the term used for the Taliban’s governance system, would not be acceptable.

Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen dismissed talk about partial US troop withdrawals but denied there was a deadlock.

“We have made good progress in the current talks, and it was agreed to discuss and resolve some technical issues,” he told The Media Line, referring to meetings held in Doha in Khalilzad’s absence.

Sediqqi said the Afghan government would likely formulate its “national-interest-based” observations within a couple of days. He added that the negotiations could lead to a permanent cease-fire and comprehensive peace if the Taliban were to agree to direct talks with the Afghan government, something they so far have refused to do.

Jennifer Young, a British expert on Afghanistan who has spent decades in the conflict zone, said the objective of the Taliban remains the same – to create the Islamic State of Afghanistan based on its interpretation of Sharia law. Yet having recently visited the country, she says most Afghans are simply tired of war.

“They are disillusioned and disgusted by the unending brutality committed by both sides and they don’t see the current government or the Taliban as an ideal option,” she told The Media Line. “But decades of upheaval and chaos have taught them that their preferences matter very little to the outcome.”

This attitude, Young say, is illustrated by a teacher from Logar Province who told her: “We surrender to whoever is there. When the mujahedeen [rebels fighting the Soviets in the 1980s] came, we surrendered. When the Karzai government came [in December 2001, after the Taliban government was overthrown], we surrendered. If the Taliban come, we surrender. This is how we survive.”

Fatima Daudzai, a former member of the Afghan High Peace Council, says that a fundamental point of any deal is to ensure the preservation of important rights, such as freedom of speech, education for girls and women’s rights.

“These rights were suspended when the Taliban ruled most of the country from 1996 to 2001, but the amended constitution now ensures them no gender discrimination,” she told The Media Line. “Khalilzad, Ghani and others are very much concerned about protecting these rights while framing any peace deal with the Taliban.”

Freshta Farhang, an Afghani author and women’s rights activist, told The Media Line that since the US-Taliban peace talks began, the people of Afghanistan have been living in uncertainty, afraid for the future.

“The country has, no doubt, lost much over the past 18 years of war, but we also gained some very important things during this time, and the people of Afghanistan want those 18 years of achievements to be preserved,” she said.

“Afghanis are tired of war,” Farhang continued, “but peace and stability must mean that we and our children are not deprived of our basic human rights in which the law is the same for everyone.”

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the South Asia/Asia Program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says the deal being discussed addresses little that is concrete, but could have wider implications.

“The agreement is very narrowly focused, with an emphasis on troop withdrawals and denying space to international terrorists,” he told The Media Line. “[It] implies that it should be seen as an opening for the formal launch of an intra-Afghan dialogue that can eventually bring a ceasefire and a comprehensive political settlement.”

His main concern seems to be whether it can provide what Afghanistan’s people want.

“If there’s one thing that we know most Afghans want, it is peace,” Kugelman went on. “And so there will be support for a deal that gets the country a bit closer to peace. The problem is that this US-Taliban deal is not a peace deal – it’s a troop withdrawal plan that does not oblige the Taliban to stop fighting. In that regard, I imagine many Afghans will be very concerned about a deal that will reduce the number of US troops without bringing an end to the fighting.”