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US Open to Meeting With Taliban        07/17 06:21

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- The United States is open to holding direct talks with 
the Taliban to encourage negotiations between the militant group and the Afghan 
government to end 17 years of war, U.S. officials said.

   That marks a tactical shift by the Trump administration, which has 
previously only appeared willing to participate in discussions with the Taliban 
if those talks also involve the Afghan government. The U.S. officials said 
Monday that Afghan-to-Afghan negotiation remains the goal of any engagement 
with the militants.

   The officials were not authorized to speak to media and requested anonymity.

   The Taliban have long refused direct talks with the Afghan government, 
demanding instead to negotiate with Washington. The militants have persisted in 
that stance despite Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's unilateral extension of a 
holiday cease-fire last month in hopes of encouraging the militants to come to 
the bargaining table. With the Taliban continuing to mount deadly attacks, 
Ghani ordered government forces to resume military operations this month.

   The unprecedented, three-day cease-fire by both sides had offered a rare 
glimpse of peace for Afghans during which militants fraternized with security 
force members.

   A Taliban official in the small Gulf Arab nation of Qatar told The 
Associated Press on Monday that no American official or intermediary has been 
in touch with them to start direct talks, and it had only heard of it in the 
media. The administration's willingness to hold direct talks with the Taliban 
was first reported by The New York Times on Sunday.

   The Taliban official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because he 
was authorized to speak to journalists, said, "We wait for them to officially 
inform us." But he added that if the U.S. is interested in talks, it should 
take steps to get Taliban leaders off a sanctions blacklist and support the 
formal opening of the Taliban office in Qatar where its political 
representatives reside. The official reiterated the Taliban's call for the 
withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.

   Asked if the U.S. was willing to hold direct talks with the Taliban, the 
State Department said Monday, the United States "is exploring all avenues to 
advance a peace process in close consultation with the Afghan government."

   The department added that "any negotiations over the political future of 
Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and Afghan government."

   Last August, President Donald Trump launched an Afghanistan strategy that 
centered on boosting the capabilities of Afghan security forces and aiming --- 
with help from Pakistan and other interested nations --- to compel the 
militants to negotiate. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Afghanistan last 
week to reinforce its support for talks.

   "The United States will support, facilitate, and participate in these peace 
discussions, but peace must be decided by the Afghans and settled among them. 
We expect that these peace talks will include a discussion of the role of 
international actors and forces," Pompeo said after meeting Ghani in Kabul on 
July 9.

   The U.S. invaded Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, 
and ousted the Taliban government that had hosted al-Qaida. It has about 15,000 
troops in Afghanistan, mostly for training government forces.

   The conflict appears stalemated, with insurgents controlling or contesting 
more than 40 percent of the country. The U.N. mission in Afghanistan said 
Sunday that 1,692 civilians were killed in violence in the first six months of 
this year, the highest six-month death toll since the systematic documentation 
of civilian casualties started in 2009.


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