July 9, 2019 / 6:43 AM / 8 days ago

U.S., Taliban talks end after rival Afghans agree on 'roadmap for peace'

KABUL (Reuters) - The U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan wound up on Tuesday the seventh round of talks he has held with the Taliban in Qatar, after signs of progress in efforts to end the longest war the United States has ever fought.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad speaks during a debate at Tolo TV channel in Kabul, Afghanistan April 28, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

The U.S. envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, met Taliban officials briefly a day after a delegation of Afghan citizens and the militants agreed on a “roadmap for peace”, in particular a joint call to end civilian casualties in the 18-year war.

“Khalilzad will now brief his bosses and they will make an announcement. The seventh round has ended,” said a senior official privy to the talks.

The United States and the Taliban are getting closer to a deal that is expected to be centred on a U.S. promise to withdraw troops in exchange for a Taliban promise not to let Afghanistan be used as a base for terrorism, officials say.

Last week, Khalilzad said the latest round of talks, which began on June 28, was the “most productive” since the effort began late last year, with progress on a counter-terrorism assurance, a troop withdrawal, dialogue between rival Afghans and a ceasefire.

Khalilzad, in a post on Twitter, said he was heading to China then back to Washington “to report and consult on the Afghan peace process”. He did not elaborate.

Taliban officials were not immediately available for comment.

Senior Western officials and diplomats in Kabul who are privy to the talks, said the U.S. government was expected to make an announcement after a briefing from Khalilzad.

“The stage is now being set for a political settlement between the U.S. and the Taliban,” said a senior western official who is privy to the negotiations.

While a deal between the United States and the Taliban might let the United States extricate itself from a war President Donald Trump is eager to end, it might not bring peace between the U.S.-backed government based in Kabul and the militants.

ZERO CIVILIAN CASUALTIES

The Taliban have refused to negotiate with the government, denouncing it as a U.S puppet, but in an effort to foster Afghan reconciliation, a 60-strong delegation of citizens met the Taliban for two days of talks in Qatar from Sunday.

The two sides said in a joint statement late on Monday they had agreed to a roadmap and were both “committed to respect and protect the dignity of people, their life and property and to minimize the civilian casualties to zero”.

The two sides also promised to guarantee the security of public institutions such as schools, hospitals and markets.

But on Sunday, as the Afghan rivals sat down for talks in Qatar, Taliban fighters detonated a car bomb outside a government compound in the central town of Ghazni, killing 14 and wounding more than 100, including scores of children in a school.

Seven civilians were killed in a government air strike in the north late on Monday, the ministry of defence said in a statement, adding that strike was conducted for the “elimination of the enemy”.

According to the United Nations, 3,804 civilians - including more than 900 children - were killed and 7,000 wounded in 2018, the deadliest year for civilians in the conflict.

The Taliban control and influence more territory than at any point since they were ousted in 2001.

Trump said he wanted to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan but was concerned that without a U.S. military presence, it could be used as a base for terrorist attacks on the United States.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said recently the United States wanted a deal with the Taliban by Sept. 1 - ahead of an Afghan presidential election due at the end of the month.

Reporting by Rupam Jain in Kabul, Eman Kamel in Doha; Editing by Robert Birsel

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