U.S., Taliban negotiators close to peace deal, officials say

KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. and Taliban leaders are close to reaching a peace deal that would see the eventual withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and an end to the 18-year long conflict, according to the militant group’s spokesman and a person familiar with the talks in Washington.

It’s the second time in recent months the two sides have appeared close to announcing an agreement. In September President Donald Trump abruptly called off talks in response to a suicide bombing in Kabul that killed an American soldier.

Led by special envoy on Afghan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. delegation is discussing the Taliban’s offer of a 7-to-10 day halt in its military operations in talks underway in Doha, where the group has a political office, the militant group’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said via a series of messages on Tuesday. The talks will also decide when and where the agreement will be signed.

The U.S. side believes an agreement is imminent and Khalilzad has imposed a communications blackout on his team, wary that any leak could result in the deal again being scuttled at the last minute, the person said. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus declined to comment.

General Scott Miller, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, is also attending the meeting that began Monday night, Mujahed said. The American embassy in Kabul was unable to provide a comment, it said in an emailed statement Tuesday.

Mujahed said there were no changes to the terms of agreement that had been decided before Trump called off the talks last year.

“After the deal, the U.S. will only have an embassy in Kabul for diplomatic relations,” Mujahed said. “All their military will leave the country,” he said, adding that according to the agreement the U.S. would pull out some 5,000 of the 13,000 American troops in the war-torn nation within 135 days. The rest would follow gradually.

Washington had asked for a complete long-term cease-fire before a peace deal. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has said the Taliban must first accept a nationwide cease-fire before any direct peace negotiations. The militant group has said it will open direct talks with Afghan officials after the U.S. troop withdrawal deal.

The militant group’s offer is a key step forward to persuade the U.S. to sign the agreement, said a former Taliban official, Sayed Akbar Agha, by phone.

The conflict has killed tens of thousands of Afghans, more than 2,400 U.S. forces and cost the U.S. about $900 billion.