In a preliminary meeting in Doha on Friday, Taliban representatives and US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad discussed the Taliban’s conditions to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan, two top Taliban officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera.
“Six US delegates arrived in Doha to have a meeting with our [Taliban] leaders [and] agreed to discuss all issues, including the pullout of foreign troops,” one of the officials said.
“But, it was a preliminary meeting and all issues were discussed in general, not in detail,” he added, saying more talks were expected to take place in the near future.
Last year, US President Donald Trump increased the number of US forces in the country as part of a new strategy against the Taliban. There are now about 14,000 US soldiers in the country. The Taliban has previously said the presence of foreign troops was the biggest obstacle to peace in Afghanistan.
In addition to the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban’s conditions include the lifting of sanctions on its leaders, the release of their fighters imprisoned in Afghanistan, and the establishment of an official political office.
At the request of the US, a Taliban office was established in Doha in 2013 to facilitate peace talks but it was shut shortly after opening when it came under pressure over a flag hung outside the office, the same flag that was flown during the Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
Then Afghan President Hamid Karzai subsequently halted peace efforts, saying the office was presenting itself as an unofficial embassy for a government-in-exile.
The flag has since been taken down and the office has been empty with no official announcements about a possible reopening.
Talks with the Taliban have since been taking place elsewhere in Doha.
US officials in Kabul and Zalmay Khalilzad were not immediately available to comment on Saturday’s gathering in the Qatari capital.
It was the second time that US officials met with the group in Qatar. The first meeting took place in July, and included US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells.
In recent months, Khalilzad, who was appointed as US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation in September, has met officials from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in a bid to renew the long-stalled direct talks with the Taliban.
The Taliban, Afghanistan’s largest armed group that was toppled from power by a US-led invasion in 2001, has repeatedly turned down offers of talks with the Afghan government, calling them “US puppets”, despite calls from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to start negotiations.
Instead, they demanded to meet US officials for talks primarily on foreign troops withdrawal.
In July, the US announced it was ready for direct talks with the Taliban to seek negotiations and to “discuss the role of international forces”.
Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan who is now based in Doha and in contact with the Taliban representatives, confirmed the US decision to discuss a pullout from Afghanistan.
He was not present at the meeting, but said the withdrawal of foreign troops “now only requires a timeline for implementation”.
“As per my information, the US has reached an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw troops from Afghanistan but the US officials have not yet agreed on a date,” he said.
“The US is not winning in Afghanistan. They are aware of that, which means they have to agree on the Taliban’s conditions for ending the war in the country.”
Some analysts, however, fear the withdrawal of foreign troops will not end the long-running conflict in Afghanistan.
In recent months, there has been a surge in violence across the country, with heavy clashes between the Taliban and Afghan security forces from the provinces of Badakhshan, Baghlan and Faryab in the north to the province of Farah in the west.
Faizullah Zaland, a political analyst based in Kabul, said long-term international support and a power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government is necessary to end the war.
“The US has tried all its methods, policies and strategies to limit the Afghan war, but instead the war has grown even more. The Taliban has got more land and more control in the country,” he said.
The US strategy in 2017 of increasing troops in Afghanistan by raising the number of soldiers from 8,400 to about 14,000, has also “failed”, he said
“The international community’s long term support is the only guarantee for Afghan peace, in addition to a power sharing agreement with the Taliban.”
In May, Farah city, one of the largest cities of Afghanistan, was on the verge of falling to the Taliban, which would have made it the second city, after Kunduz in 2015, to fall under the Taliban since the war began in 2001.
In an attempt to put an end fight, in February, Ghani offered recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political group, and involvement in a constitutional review that he said could bring the group to the negotiating table to end the 17-year war.
But the Taliban continued fighting as their demand to meet directly with US officials was ignored.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesperson for the Taliban said, fighters will target “people who are trying to help in holding this process successfully by providing security”.
He added that “no stone should be left unturned for the prevention and failure” of the election.
As of January 2018, the Afghan government only controls 56.3 percent of the country, according to a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released in May.
The Taliban, meanwhile, hold 59 districts, while the remaining 119 – about 29.2 percent – are contested, meaning they are not controlled by the Afghan government nor the armed group.
In a report last week, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said at least 8,050 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of 2018.
Half of them of were killed in suicide attacks and bombings that might amount to war crimes, UNAMA said
“Civilian deaths has not been the main concern during these talks, but in reality, civilian casualties is the grimmest part of this war and the credit goes to all sides engaged in this conflict,” Zaland, the political analyst told Al Jazeera.
“Trust building measurements should been soon taken in order to build the trust of civilians for them to support the peace process.”
17 years after 9/11: US nears 17 years of Afghan war