WASHINGTON — As the United States and the Taliban begin a new round of negotiations in an effort to move the peace process forward, a senior U.S. military commander says no decision has been made about the presence of U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told U.S.-funded Middle East Broadcasting Network’s Alhurra TV on Monday that no decision has been made about the presence of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
“We’ve made no decision about any shift in U.S. or coalition forces in Afghanistan at this time. Any future decisions will be directly related to ongoing negotiations involving the government of Afghanistan, the people in Afghanistan and possibly the Taliban,” McKenzie, who commands all U.S. military operations in the region, said.
“I think we’ll stay as long as necessary to ensure that the mission is accomplished, and the mission is ensuring that attacks against the U.S. homeland can’t be launched from Afghanistan,” he emphasized.
McKenzie said the U.S. is interested in “lasting peace” in Afghanistan and that the country would not be used by terrorists to pose a threat to the security of the U.S and its allies.
“Whatever future government there is in Afghanistan is going to have to embrace the idea that it won’t be a breeding ground for terror operations that could operate against either the United States or our partners and allies,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie did seem optimistic about the U.S. peace talks with the Taliban, another round of which kicked off Wednesday with U.S. special reconciliation envoy Zalmay Khalilzad meeting Taliban leaders in Doha.
“I am optimistic that we have a path forward here, perhaps the first time in many years,” McKenzie said.
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A Taliban official, speaking to VOA on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said the new round of talks would build on the preliminary agreement the two sides reached in early March.
The insurgent group has insisted on finalizing an agreement on the withdrawal of U.S.-led foreign forces from Afghanistan before discussing other issues.
Khalilzad met this week with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy Taliban leader for political affairs and head of the group’s informal office in Doha, before the formal talks Wednesday, and the issue of withdrawing troops has been reportedly brought up by the Taliban side.
“It is absolutely vital that the two key agenda points of the previous meeting [full withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and prevention of Afghanistan from harming others] be finalized,” a Taliban statement quoted Baradar as telling the U.S. chief negotiator.
“This will open the way for resolving other aspects of the issue, and we cannot enter into other topics before this,” the statement added.
The Taliban have so far refused to hold direct official talks with the Afghan government and have insisted on continuing to directly talk with the U.S.
Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative, has been trying to push the insurgent group to talk with the Afghan government and to agree to a cease-fire.
“The Taliban say, ‘A cease-fire is not part of the agenda.’ For us, peace is the agenda. The Afghan people have had enough violence and want an end to the war. The United States stands with them. I challenge Talibs to join other Afghans and work to make this the year of peace,” Khalilzad said last week.
The Afghan government has been insisting on eventually leading the peace talks with the Taliban as a state and have voiced concerns about being sidelined in the negotiations.
The U.S. chief negotiator has been assuring the Afghan government that Taliban would sit with the Afghan government.
According to a statement issued by the Afghan presidential palace, following a meeting between Khalilzad and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani over the weekend, Ghani stressed the importance of “intra-Afghan dialogue” when it comes to talks with the Taliban.
“Both sides once again emphasized an intra-Afghan dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban, led by the Afghan government,” the statement added.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Afghanistan High Peace Council (HPC), a government body tasked with talking to the Afghan Taliban, told VOA on Wednesday that they were hopeful that the new round of discussions in Doha would pave the way for an “intra-Afghan dialogue.”
“The expectation of the High Peace Council is that Mr. Khalilzad’s efforts would pave the way for talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban movement,” Ghafoor Ahmad Javid, HPC’s spokesperson, said.
The new round of U.S. talks with the Taliban came as the government convened a four-day “Consultative Peace Loya Jirga” where more than 3,000 representatives from various parts of Afghanistan, including areas controlled by the Taliban, will discuss a united approach to talking with the Taliban.
VOA’s Ayaz Gul contributed to this story from Islamabad.