US, Taliban to open Doha talks in fresh bid to end war

The Taliban's top political leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar left and chief negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai met Afghans in Moscow last month

The Taliban's top political leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar left and chief negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai met Afghans in Moscow last month

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid tweeted that the "seventh round of talks between U.S. representatives and the negotiation team of the Islamic Emirate have begun in Doha". Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said there was no connection between military action and peace talks: "We will continue to fight against the foreign and Afghan forces until a peace deal is signed".

On Tuesday, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid an unannounced visit to Kabul and hoped for a peace deal with the Taliban "before September 1".

The focus of the peace talks has been a Taliban demand that foreign forces leave and a US demand for a guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for attacks elsewhere.

United States officials and the Taliban are due to launch the seventh round of talks later on Saturday, in what one U.S. official said was a "make-or-break moment" in efforts to end the 18-year war.

The Taliban control or contest half the country, more than at any time since they were ousted by US-led forces in late 2001. It was expected that a timetable would be among the discussion points in the Doha talks. He has been relentless in his pursuit of an intra-Afghan dialogue after an earlier planned meeting between the government and the Taliban in Doha was scuttled when both sides disagreed on who should participate.

Back in May, President Ghani held a grand council on peace where 3,200 delegates called for a ceasefire and asked Ghani to release Taliban prisoners as a gesture of goodwill. But President Ashraf Ghani and leaders of opposition political parties have rejected the demand.

One U.S. official said the meeting was a "make-or-break moment" in efforts to end the 18-year-old war.

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The Taliban say they will meet with Afghan government officials but only as ordinary Afghans and not representatives of the government until an agreement with the U.S.is finalized, saying the U.S.is the final arbiter on the Taliban's biggest issue of troop withdrawal.

A Taliban leader in Qatar, who also declined to be identified, said the talks would be crucial. Taliban officials who have spoken to the AP on condition they not be identified because they are not authorized to speak to the media, say they won't agree to a cease-fire until troop withdrawal is in place because returning Taliban to the battlefield with the same momentum of today if the U.S. reneges on its promises could be hard. That's because returning Taliban fighters to the battlefield if the USA reneges on its promises could be hard.

They kicked off in the Qatari capital just as news broke that at least 25 pro-government militiamen were killed in a Taliban attack in northern Afghanistan.

"There is a genuine sense of expectation on both sides", said the official, who declined to be identified as he is not authorised to speak to media.

The violence in Baghlan came as the United States and the Taliban officials were due to start a new round of talks in Qatar to end the 18-year-long U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

In the latest bloodshed, Taliban stormed security posts manned by the pro-government militia in the early hours of Saturday in the Nahrin district of the northern province of Baghlan.

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