One Year or Five. U.S., Taliban Spar Over Troop-Pullout Timing

(Bloomberg) -- The Afghan Taliban rejected a proposal that would result in U.S. forces being withdrawn from the war-torn nation in five years, posing a serious setback to the efforts aimed at ending America’s longest war through negotiations.

The rebel group wants foreign troops to leave the country within a year, according to two former Taliban leaders. The U.S. and the insurgents resumed peace talks on Saturday after a two-day break for internal deliberations, but five rounds of discussions haven’t yielded a breakthrough on the timeline for a withdrawal nor has it elicited a pledge from the Taliban to stop terrorists from using the country as a base.

The timeline will give the U.S. “a justification to show to the world they weren’t defeated like the Soviets and suddenly left Afghanistan,” Sayed Akbar Agha, a former Taliban leader, who lives in Kabul and has been in touch with the militant group’s negotiators in Doha, said in an interview. But the Taliban rejected the proposal, he said. Maulavi Qalamuddin, another ex-Taliban leader, echoed Agha’s comments.

Washington has increased efforts to end the 18-year-old war through negotiations in the past year. Regular attacks by the Taliban and fighting between insurgents and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s troops have displaced 1.7 million people and killed tens of thousands. Meanwhile, Taliban, which controls or contests half of the Afghan territory, intensified its attack on government forces amid the talks.

Taliban Attacks

The group attacked a key Afghan army base, that also houses U.S. troops, on Saturday with up to 30 suicide bombers and fighters armed with heavy weapons, killing more than 20 Afghan soldiers but leaving no U.S. casualties. The insurgents have also stepped up attacks in the north to try to take over districts in a bid to get more leverage at the talks.

The U.S. plan mirrors the withdrawal timeline it agreed with Ghani’s government in 2014. According to the Bilateral Security Agreement, foreign forces in the country would stay until the end of 2024.

However Ghani, who has been sidelined in the peace discussions, criticized the U.S.-Taliban meeting saying it won’t succeed behind closed doors. He reiterated his calls to Taliban to talk with his administration and agreed to allow the militant group to open offices in Afghanistan. After years of rejecting Ghani’s calls, the group says it will talk with him after they reach an agreement with the U.S.

“Once they reach agreement, the Taliban will announce ceasefire and start talking to the Afghan government to discuss the future of a sharing government, the freedom of Taliban prisoners and removal of their names from the United Nations and U.S. blacklists,” Agha said.

Doha Meetings

Still, analysts and many Afghans are concerned about any regime led by or involving the militant group. The Taliban imposed a strict interpretation of Islamic law during its five year rule to 2001. After taking control, the rebels ordered the execution of Afghanistan’s former President Mohammad Najibullah, who was living in a UN compound in the city.

Najibullah was dragged from the compound and publicly hanged. The regime also banned women from attending schools and working. The Taliban even punished people for watching television.

To ease Taliban’s apprehensions about the talks, Pakistan released Taliban deputy chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar after almost ten years following the intervention of the U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. Baradar is now leading the talks in Doha where the group has a political office. He also held meetings with top Qatari officials and on Sunday met with Uzbekistan’s Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed in a March 3 emailed statement, said the talks are advancing. Both Agha and Qalamuddin say both sides may reach an agreement this week.

The U.S. embassy in Kabul didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

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