NATO’s chief and the acting head of the Pentagon said they were encouraged by the progress of peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, amid guarded optimism about efforts to end the 17-year war in the country.
The comments January 28 by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan came as the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan voiced a similarly positive assessment about five days of talks with Taliban negotiations in Doha.
“The meetings in Doha this time were much better than previous meetings. We made progress on vital issues in our discussions and agreed to agreements in principle on a couple of very important issues,” Zalmay Khalilzad told Afghan reporters in Kabul.
“There is a lot more work to be done before we can say we have succeeded in our efforts but I believe for the first time I can say that we have made significant progress,” he said.
In Washington, meanwhile, Stoltenberg vowed that the militants "will not win on the battlefield, so they have to sit down at the negotiating table, and therefore we are encouraged by what we see now, the progress... and talks with Taliban."
Shanahan echoed that, saying "I'd say really the takeaway right now: it's encouraging."
The comments came hours after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called on the Taliban to enter “serious” negotiations with Kabul government and "accept Afghans' demand for peace.”
Backed by Western nations, Ghani’s government has struggled to fend off a resurgent Taliban and other militant groups. The Taliban has so far refused to hold direct negotiations with the Afghan government officials, whom they dismiss as U.S. "puppets."
"Either they join the great nation of Afghanistan with a united voice, or be the tool of foreign objectives," he said in a televised address.
In an interview with The New York Times published January 28, Khalilzad offered more details on the state of the talks.
Under the framework, the militants would agree to prevent Afghan territory from being used by groups such as Al-Qaeda to stage terrorist attacks, Khalilzad said. That could then lead to a full pullout of U.S. combat troops, but only in return for the Taliban’s entering talks with the Afghan government and agreeing to a lasting cease-fire.
“We have a draft of the framework that has to be fleshed out before it becomes an agreement,” Khalilzad said.
The militants have said they will only begin talks with the government once a firm date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops has been agreed.
U.S. officials have said President Donald Trump wants to withdraw about half of the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Stoltenberg said it was too early to speculate about the number of NATO troops that would remain.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said there was progress, but he denied reports of an agreement on a cease-fire.
Until the withdrawal of international troops was hammered out, "progress on other issues is impossible," he said.
Another round of talks between the Taliban and the United States was tentatively set for February 25, Reuters reported.