Afghanistan's Taliban says the killing of the brother of their leader in an August 16 bomb attack in Pakistan will not derail peace talks with the United States.
Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada was not in the mosque when the bomb went off but his younger brother, Hafiz Ahmadullah, was among those killed, according to Afghan Islamic Press and Reuters.
"If someone thinks martyring our leaders would stop us from our goal, they're living in a fool's paradise," a senior Taliban figure told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location on August 17.
"We are close to our goals,” the Taliban leader said, referring to the talks with the United States.
Pakistani police say four people were killed and more than 20 injured in the explosion at the mosque about 25 kilometers outside of Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's restive Balochistan Province.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bomb attack.
The White House said on August 16 that President Donald Trump's national-security advisers had spoken positively about the Afghan peace talks during a briefing in Washington, telling Trump that negotiations with the Taliban “are proceeding.”
Officials said Trump was meeting with his top advisers to review negotiations with the Taliban on issues that include a possible U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and a political settlement to the nearly 18-year conflict.
In a tweet following the briefing, Trump wrote: "Just completed a very good meeting on Afghanistan. Many on the opposite side of this 19 year war, and us, are looking to make a deal -- if possible!"
The White House statement said Trump met with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, national-security adviser John Bolton, Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, and CIA Director Gina Haspel.
“In continued close cooperation with the government of Afghanistan, we remain committed to achieving a comprehensive peace agreement, including a reduction in violence and a cease-fire, ensuring that Afghan soil is never again used to threaten the United States or her allies, and bringing Afghans together to work towards peace,” the statement said.
Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy, has conducted eight rounds of peace talks with Taliban negotiators in Qatar.
Washington has said it wants a peace deal finalized by September 1. Some U.S. officials have hinted at the possibility that the Afghan presidential election set for September 28 could be canceled in the event of a peace settlement and the formation of an interim government that the Taliban would join.
Despite the talks with U.S. representatives, Taliban negotiators have so far refused to talk directly to the Afghan government in Kabul, calling it a puppet of foreigners.
As U.S. and Taliban negotiators appeared to be closing in on an accord, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on August 11 said Afghanistan’s future “cannot be decided outside.”
Ghani insisted that peace was only possible "between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban movement."
Senior administration officials say that no decisions have been made, but they added that Trump "has been pretty clear that he wants to bring the troops home." About 14,000 troops are in Afghanistan, mainly training and advising government forces.
The possibility of a U.S. troop withdrawal has raised concerns within the U.S. military and among some U.S. lawmakers that the security situation in Afghanistan could quickly deteriorate -- plunging the country into a new civil war and potentially turning Afghanistan into a sanctuary for Al-Qaeda and other extremists.
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina), a vocal Trump ally, said any final deal should allow the United States to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan to pursue resurgent terror groups.
"Any peace agreement which denies the U.S. a robust counterterrorism capability in Afghanistan is not a peace deal," Graham said.
"Instead, it is paving the way for another attack on the American homeland and attacks against American interests around the world."
There has been no letup in violence in the war in Afghanistan even as talks continue.
More than 3,800 civilians were killed or injured in the conflict during the first six months of this year, according to UNAMA.