KABUL (Reuters) - The U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan hopes to cement a peace deal with Taliban insurgents by April 2019, local media reported on Sunday.
Zalmay Khalilzad, in Kabul to lead talks between the United States, the Taliban and the Afghan government, told reporters he hopes “a peace deal is reached before April 20 next year”, when Afghanistan is planning to hold a presidential election.
The Afghan-born U.S. diplomat said he remained “cautiously optimistic” about the peace talks.
Khalilzad, chosen by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration to hold direct talks with the Taliban, met the leaders of the hardline Islamist group in Qatar last month to find ways to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan.
On Sunday Khalilzad said the end state of the talks would be “peace and a successful Afghanistan, one that doesn’t pose any threats to itself and to the international community”.
The Taliban spokesman was not immediately available for comment but two senior Taliban leaders, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Taliban leaders will present a new set of demands to Khalilzad.
The insurgents, fighting to expel foreign forces and defeat the Western-backed Afghan government, last month presented demands to Khalilzad that included a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the release of senior Taliban from jails.
In October, Pakistan released one of the co-founders of the Taliban and another high-ranking commander.
No date has been announced for another round of talks but Khalilzad said the Taliban “might bring additional changes to their team of negotiators.”
Khalilzad is trying to cobble together a negotiating team comprising influential Afghans to reassure the U.S.-backed government in Kabul that it will not be shut out of a peace process.
While the Trump administration and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government are making efforts to reach a settlement with the Taliban, the insurgents have continued their attacks on government forces, inflicting hundreds of casualties over recent weeks in assaults across Afghanistan.
On Saturday, U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford said: “We used the term stalemate a year ago and relatively speaking it hasn’t changed much, but ... we do believe that the Taliban know that at some point they have to reconcile.”
Additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Jibran Ahmed in Peshawar, Idrees Ali in Washington D.C, Editing by Himani Sarkar; Editing by Janet Lawrence