Deal nears in talks with US, say Taliban

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Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen, pictured July 2019, said the negotiators are "finalising the remaining points"

US and Taliban negotiators held productive talks Tuesday, the insurgent group said, as potentially decisive discussions to enable Washington to draw down its deployment to Afghanistan entered their fifth day.

Despite the Taliban's upbeat assessment, the ninth round of talks in Qatar appeared to have lost some of its earlier momentum as negotiators wrangled over individual words and phrases in a draft deal.

"We have progress in this round so we are finalising the remaining points," Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told journalists outside the up-market Doha members' club where the talks are taking place.

He said a deal could be expected "as soon as the remaining points are finalised."

The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after the September 11 attacks, toppling the Taliban from power.

Washington wants to withdraw thousands of troops and bring an end to 18 years of war -- but only on condition the group renounces its connections to Al-Qaeda and curbs attacks.

The Doha talks are being held against a backdrop of persistent violence in Afghanistan.

The Taliban claimed on Saturday to have killed seven members of the US military in an attack on a convoy near Bagram airfield north of Kabul.

American officials dismissed the claims as "lies."

On Wednesday, two US soldiers were killed by small arms fire in Faryab province in northern Afghanistan, the Pentagon said.

Shaheen had said the deaths should have a "positive" impact on talks in Doha.

The US chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted Monday that Washington would "defend Afghan forces now and after any agreement" with the group.

He was responding to suggestions a deal might not apply to the insurgents' fight against the US-backed Afghan government.

He also wrote that all sides in the negotiations had agreed "Afghanistan's future will be determined in intra-Afghan negotiations."

Shaheen said "all internal issues" would be discussed in inter-Afghan talks after the Doha agreement is completed and made public.

Washington is hoping to strike such a deal by September 1 -- ahead of Afghan polls due the same month, and US presidential polls next year.

The four pillars of any Taliban-US deal are expected to be the withdrawal of foreign troops, a ceasefire, counter-terror guarantees and intra-Afghan dialogue.

Any agreement would be announced before the media as well as representatives from neighbouring countries including China, as well as Russia and the United Nations, the Taliban has said.