Russia plays power broker as US-Taliban talks gather steam

Former insurgents surrender their weapons during a reconciliation ceremony in Herat Afghanistan on Jan. 23

Former insurgents surrender their weapons during a reconciliation ceremony in Herat Afghanistan on Jan. 23

The U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Ambassador Khalilzad had earlier said that significant progress has been made on vital issues during the 6-day talks with Taliban political leaders in Qatar. "After the withdrawal, we are not seeking a monopoly on power", Shaheen said.

The Taliban, who now control nearly half the country and carry out near-daily attacks mainly targeting Afghan security forces, issued the statement amid intensified US -led talks to resolve the long-running Afghanistan war.

Meanwhile, the strength of Afghan security forces has continued to dwindle, and now stands at 308,693 personnel. "And they have promised to do so, saying the USA wants to maintain friendly ties with Afghanistan and would participate in reconstruction efforts".

The US has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of a NATO-led mission, known as Resolute Support, and a separate counterterrorism mission largely directed against armed groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) and the al-Qaeda.

"It's an effort to put lipstick on what will be a USA withdrawal", said Ryan Crocker, a former US ambassador to Kabul under Obama. "If the USA leaves after they've come to an agreement but before it's implemented, that agreement will never be implemented and the war will resume".

Taliban militants are now involved in negotiations in Qatar with Zalmay Khalilzad, the USA special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation.

Taliban officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said that the two sides had reached an understanding about the withdrawal of US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation troops and that the militant group had made assurances that Afghan soil would not be used again for attacks against the United States or others. Citing information declassified by U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, SIGAR said Afghan forces had 4,735 female personnel - less than 2 percent of current assigned strength. Afghan officials hope Trump will explain his intentions in further detail during his State of the Union address next week. He said the report highlights the need for the United States to change its tactics.

Khalilzad has provided few specifics about a potential deal with the Taliban, but the militants are believed to have promised not to provide shelter again to foreign extremists.

The latest quarterly report by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) shows 53.8 percent of Afghanistan's 407 districts are with the government, covering 63.5 percent of the population by October 2018, with the rest of the country controlled or contested by the Taliban.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said Tuesday that he saw "some very encouraging possibilities" in Khalilzad's negotiations.

"The Taliban will offer any number of commitments, knowing that when we are gone and the Taliban is back, we will have no means of enforcing any of them", Crocker wrote. "We will build the institutions on the basis of Islamic laws and the fundamental constitution will be developed according to Islamic Sharia", Stanikzai said when asked.whether the existing governing setup in the country would be acceptable for the Taliban.

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