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US ready for direct talks with Afghan Taliban

Comment by senior US general follows increased diplomatic efforts to end the nearly 17-year war in Afghanistan.

Ghanikhel district

The United States is ready to join direct negotiations with the Taliban in an effort to end the 17-year-long war in Afghanistan, a senior US commander said.

Amid growing speculation about possible peace talks, General John Nicholson's comments on Monday follow increased diplomatic efforts to seek negotiations following unprecedented scenes of unarmed Taliban fighters mingling with Afghan security forces on the streets of Kabul and other cities during last month's surprise ceasefire.

Nicholson, who leads the NATO-led Resolute Support mission, said the US recognised it had a key role to play.

"Our secretary of state, Mr [Mike] Pompeo, has said that we, the United States, are ready to talk to the Taliban and discuss the role of international forces," he said.

"We hope that they realise this and that this will help to move the peace process forward."

Troop withdrawal?

Sohail Shahin, a spokesman for the Taliban's political office in Qatar, said he was still waiting for confirmation of Nicholson's comments but welcomed signs of the new approach.

"This is what we wanted and were waiting for - to sit with the US directly and discuss the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan," Shahin said.

He said as a first step he expected to see Taliban leaders removed from a United Nations blacklist in order to be able to travel.

Shahin also said the issue of international troops in Afghanistan would be a major issue and the Taliban would be willing to discuss American concerns.

US officials have said President Donald Trump has shown growing impatience with a lack of progress in Afghanistan, where the Taliban control much of the country despite a more aggressive campaign of air raids announced last year.

The armed group rejected talks with the government of President Ashraf Ghani, which it sees as illegitimate, and instead insisted it would only talk to the United States.

Shifting position

Pompeo has said while the overall peace process must be Afghan-led, Washington would be ready to join talks - a shift from its previous position that only Ghani's government had the legitimacy to talk to the Taliban.

He also said the US is willing to discuss the position of international forces in Afghanistan, which the Taliban said must leave the country as a condition for negotiations.

Senior US officials, including Pompeo and Alice Wells, the Department of State's top diplomat for Afghanistan, visited Kabul in recent weeks to try to smooth the way for talks.

Many obstacles still remain before a conflict that has killed a record number of civilians this year can end. A total of 1,692 civilians were killed in the first half of 2018.


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