Envoy says US ready for 'all sides' to lay down arms in Afghan war

Sajjad TARAKZAI
US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is leading the latest round of talks with the Taliban in Doha

The US special envoy tasked with forging a peace deal with the Taliban said Saturday that America stands ready for "all sides" to lay down arms in the 17-year conflict.

Peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is leading the latest round of talks with the Taliban in Doha, where the two foes are pursuing a deal that would see the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan in return for Taliban security guarantees.

"All sides laying down arms is the outcome of any peace process," Khalilzad tweeted.

"All sides agreeing to reduce violence is a necessary step toward achieving that outcome and the morally responsible choice to make. We stand ready."

Khalilzad's comments come a day after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said he was prepared to call an "immediate" and "permanent" ceasefire -- but the Taliban rebuffed the offer.

Ghani had also offered to release 175 prisoners as a goodwill gesture. His talk of a ceasefire comes as momentum builds in various Afghan peace talks.

Thousands of tribal elders, women and representatives met last week at a massive "loya jirga" peace summit in Kabul, which ended with a demand for a ceasefire between government and Taliban forces.

- 'Failed strategies' -

The talks between the Taliban and the US, who have met about a half dozen times in recent months, are taking place separately in the Qatari capital Doha.

Neither side has said much about progress in their latest talks, which were ongoing Saturday, but Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on Friday tweeted that America should "forget about the idea of us putting down our arms".

The Doha talks focus on an eventual foreign troop withdrawal in exchange for the Taliban guaranteeing Afghanistan will never again be used as a safe haven for terror groups.

Khalilzad has repeatedly stressed that nothing would be finalised until two other key issues -- a ceasefire and dialogue between Afghan society and the Taliban -- have been addressed.

Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban's political spokesman in Doha, told AFP that "efforts are underway" to flesh out differences on the security and troop withdrawal issues.

But in what appears to be something of an impasse with the Americans, Shaheen said the other key points of a comprehensive ceasefire and intra-Afghan dialogue could not be addressed until those first two points were agreed.

Last year, however, the Taliban did announce a three-day ceasefire at the end of Ramadan after Ghani declared a unilateral truce for eight days earlier in the month.

It was the first formal nationwide ceasefire since the US-led invasion of 2001 and saw unprecedented scenes of reconciliation and jubilation across the country.

The insurgents have steadfastly refused to talk to Ghani, who they view as a US puppet, and talks thus far have cut out his government.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan's war rages on, with thousands of civilians and fighters being killed each year.

US forces continue to train Afghan partners on the ground and strike the Taliban from the air, in a bid to push the war to a political settlement.