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US, Taliban agree in principle to framework of peace deal: Report

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Washington, Jan 28 : In a possible breakthrough, the US and the Taliban have agreed in principle to the framework of a peace deal that moves both parties toward ending the 17-year war in Afghanistan, a media report said Monday.

The draft outlines a commitment from the Taliban that Afghan soil will not be used by terrorists, and the US begin a troop withdrawal in return for a cease-fire and talks, the New York Times reported, quoting Special US Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad.

"We have a draft of the framework that has to be fleshed out before it becomes an agreement," Khalilzad was quoted as saying by the paper.

"The Taliban have committed, to our satisfaction, to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals."

Afghanistan-born Khalilzad added: "We felt enough confidence that we said we need to get this fleshed out, and details need to be worked out."

Since being appointed in September last, Khalilzad has met with all sides in an attempt to end America's longest war in which the US has lost over 2,400 soldiers in more than 17 years.

The Taliban control nearly half of Afghanistan, and are more powerful than at any time since the 2001 US-led invasion after the 9/11 terror attacks.

In a series of tweets after six days of talks with the Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar last week, Khalilzad said the US has made "significant progress" in its peace talks with the Taliban.

"After six days in Doha, I'm headed to Afghanistan for consultations. Meetings here were more productive than they have been in the past. We made significant progress on vital issues," he said Saturday. However, he cautioned that nothing has been finalised yet.

Quoting a senior US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the paper said that the Taliban delegation had asked for time to confer with their leadership about the American insistence that the insurgents talk with the Afghan government and agree to a cease-fire as part of any finalised deal.

The official said they had made it clear to the Taliban that all the issues discussed were "interconnected" as part of a "package deal" that he likened to a Russian nesting doll, the NYT reported.

Although other Taliban sources said that more concrete details of an American troop withdrawal had already been agreed upon, American officials said Monday that those details had not yet been hashed out, the paper added.

Khalilzad returned to Afghanistan on Sunday to brief the Afghan government after his talks with the Taliban delegation in Doha.

After being briefed by Khalilzad, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani expressed concern that a peace deal would be rushed. He highlighted previous settlements that ended in bloodshed, including when the Soviet Union withdrew from the country, the paper said.

"We want peace quickly, we want it soon, but we want it with prudence," Ghani said. "Prudence is important so we do not repeat past mistakes."

During the talks last week, the Taliban signalled their seriousness by appointing Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar as their chief peace negotiator.

Mullah Baradar, one of the four top commanders who formed the Taliban in 1994, was released from jail last year by the Pakistan government. He is believed to be the highest ranking Afghan Taliban prisoner freed so far.

He held several senior positions in the Taliban government before its fall in 2001. He was once considered the most influential Taliban leader after Mullah Muhammad Omar.

"Though American and Afghan officials said that Baradar was not directly involved in the marathon meetings last week, with some sessions lasting as long as eight hours, he was expected to take the lead in the talks to come. The senior American officials said new high-level talks would start in late February, but suggested that teams from both sides could start on technical details before then," the NYT reported.

As the first step in the framework, Khalilzad said that the Taliban were firm to prevent Afghan territory from being used as a staging ground for terrorism by groups like Al-Qaeda and other international terrorists, and had agreed to provide guarantees and an enforcement mechanism for that promise, the paper reported.

That had long been a primary demand by American officials.

The next set of contingencies laid out by the senior American official involved in the talks would see the US agreeing to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan, but only in return for the Taliban's entering talks with the Afghan government and agreeing to a lasting cease-fire.

Those last two points have long been resisted by Taliban officials, and could still provide trouble with the process, officials say. The Taliban delegation in Qatar said they had to break to discuss those details with their leadership, according to the NYT.

But the agreement in principle to discussing them at all was seen as a breakthrough after years of failed attempts, American and Afghan officials said.

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