ISLAMABAD - Afghanistan's Taliban said Saturday that their leaders had restarted peace talks with the United States, as a May 1 deadline for all U.S.-led foreign troops to withdraw from the war-shattered country fast approaches.
A spokesman for the Islamist insurgent group said the meeting took place Friday night in Doha, the capital of Qatar, where Taliban political deputy chief Abdul Ghani Baradar and U.S. special Afghan peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad led their respective teams.
The Taliban reject Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's government as an illegal entity and product of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, insisting intra-Afghan peace talks should lead to the formation of an "Islamic" government in Kabul.
Ghani said Saturday that the only way to form a government should be through "fair, free and inclusive elections under the auspices of the international community," insisting he would not compromise on the country's constitution.
"We can also talk about the date of the elections and reach a conclusion," Ghani told lawmakers in a speech to open the third term of the legislative National Assembly in Kabul.
"The transfer of power through elections is a non-negotiable principle for us," he said, stopping short of outrightly rejecting the proposal for an interim government.
Ghani won a second five-year term in the controversy-marred Afghan presidential election two years ago.
"I advise those who go to this or that gate to gain power that political power in Afghanistan has a gate, and the key is the vote of the Afghan people," he said, without directly referring to the proposed international conference.
Khalilzad in Doha
Khalilzad had traveled to Doha from Afghanistan, where he held three days of consultations with Kabul government officials, civil society leaders and other political figures on how to move the peace process forward.
FILE - U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, center, and U.S. Army General Scott Miller, commander of NATO's Resolute Support Mission, attend President Ashraf Ghani's inauguration, in Kabul, March 9, 2020.
A U.S. State Department official confirmed Friday to VOA the first formal contact between President Joe Biden's administration and the Taliban. Biden has inherited a U.S.-Taliban peace agreement sealed by his predecessor, Donald Trump, one year ago.
Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem, who speaks for the group's political office in Doha, said the commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan, U.S. General Scott Miller, also accompanied Khalilzad at the meeting.
"Both sides expressed their commitment to the Doha agreement and discussed its full implementation. Likewise, the current situation of Afghanistan and the speed and effectiveness of the intra-Afghan negotiations were discussed," Naeem said.
The February 2020 U.S.-Taliban accord signed in the Qatari capital aims to end America's longest-running war by requiring the U.S. military and the Taliban not to attack each other.
It binds the insurgents to cut ties with terrorist groups that threaten America and its allies, and instead to negotiate a political power-sharing deal with the Afghan government that brings lasting peace to the South Asian nation.
In return, Washington has pledged to withdraw the remaining 2,500 troops from Afghanistan by May, along with all NATO-led partner forces.
Surge in violence
Ensuing peace talks between Taliban and Kabul teams, however, which started in Doha last September, have made little progress.
Rather than encouraging the warring parties to reduce violence, the intra-Afghan negotiations led to a spike in deadly attacks across the country, with civilians bearing the brunt of them.
The developments prompted Biden's national security team to review the deal to examine whether the Taliban have held up their end of the commitments and whether to extend the May deadline.
While Washington has since been tight-lipped about the review, Khalilzad arrived in Kabul earlier this week, where he is said to have proposed, among other options, a U.N.-sponsored international conference involving warring Afghans to hammer out a "participatory government" to accelerate the peace process.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price attempted Friday to downplay the proposal for a global conference, saying the outcome of the Afghan peace negotiations was up to Afghans.
"We believe those outcomes should reflect the wishes and the aspirations of the Afghan people. We continue to consult closely with our allies, our partners, countries in the region, regarding how we can collectively support this peace process, and we're considering a number of different ideas that might accelerate the process forward," Price said.
"That's precisely what the special representative and his team have been doing, first on the ground in Kabul and now on the ground in Doha, and what they will continue doing in an effort to achieve progress on this very important and necessary goal," he concluded.
U.S. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, a Washington state Democrat, said Friday that a troop withdrawal by May was "highly unlikely."
"Is there a scenario that I could see this year with us getting to the point where getting out of Afghanistan makes sense? Yes," Smith said during a discussion at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.
"We need to find a way to have our presence be more strategic and less large," he emphasized.
Skeptics say the Taliban are unlikely to agree to an extension in the foreign troop drawdown unless they can extract more concessions, including release of their remaining 7,500 prisoners and the delisting of their leaders from a U.N. sanctions list.
"If the U.S. unilaterally extends the deadline, then we are in a sort of unknown area because I think the Taliban's view is that it's the U.S. that wants the war to end, not them. They are willing to fight for another 20 years," said Vali Nasr, a professor of international affairs and Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University.
He explained why an intra-Afghan peace deal would be difficult to reach.
"The way this Doha process was created, it was essentially a military disengagement deal between the two fighting forces in the ground," Nasr told an online debate organized by the Pakistan-based Center for Security Strategy and Policy Research.