Afghan Taliban: no date yet for U.S. troops drawdown

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Taliban official said on Wednesday that no timetable had been agreed with the U.S. government for the partial withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, and that negotiations were still underway.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. troops patrol at an Afghan National Army (ANA) Base in Logar province, Afghanistan August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo

Earlier, Russia’s RIA news agency had quoted a Taliban official at peace talks in Moscow as saying that Washington had promised to pull out half of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of April.

But that report was contradicted at the end of the talks in Moscow, with the Taliban official previously quoted by RIA, Abdul Salam Hanafi, denying that he had made the comment.

He said there was no detailed agreement with the U.S. chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad who has been meeting separately with Taliban negotiators. “Until now we did not agree,” the Taliban official said.

On an April withdrawal, he said: “It’s our desire. It is our demand ... Our demand is withdrawing of foreign forces as soon as possible.”

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, among the Afghan opposition politicians attending the talks, said the principle issue under discussion was that Afghanistan should be free of foreign forces.

He said there was a near-consensus in the talks on this subject. “It was very satisfactory,” said Karzai.

Afghanistan’s government was absent from the talks, because the Taliban does not recognize its legitimacy and refuses to sit down with it at the negotiating table. The government in Kabul said the talks were not in Afghanistan’s best interest.

But the presence of prominent opposition politicians will add to pressure on the government to talk to the Taliban in the search for a deal to end years of fighting.

The push for peace comes as the Taliban, ousted by U.S.-led forces in 2001, have staged near daily attacks and are in control of or contesting districts across nearly half the country.

The venue of the talks indicates an expanding role in Afghanistan for Moscow. It was embroiled in the conflict there in the 1980s after sending in the Red Army, but has since allowed Washington to take the lead role.

That may now change after U.S. President Donald Trump said he wanted to eventually pull American troops out of the country and end nearly two decades of U.S. military involvement there.

Trump said on Tuesday his administration had accelerated talks for a political settlement in Afghanistan and would be able to reduce U.S. troops there as negotiations advanced to end America’s longest war.

Addiitonal reporting by Hamid Shalizi Greg Torode in Kabul and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Christian Lowe, Editing by William Maclean