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Expectations surge ahead of US-Taliban talks 

Kabul, February 24

The US and the Taliban are to meet in Qatar for fresh talks on Monday seeking an end to 17 years of grinding conflict in Afghanistan, with the stakes ratcheting higher as the spring fighting season approaches.

Marathon talks held in Doha last month have stoked hopes of a breakthrough after the two sides walked away with a “draft framework” that included a Taliban commitment to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for international terror groups. It was the most substantial engagement by Washington with the militants since US forces ousted them from power in 2001. But there is still no accord on a timetable for a US withdrawal or a ceasefire — both major issues on which previous efforts have foundered.

This time Washington’s special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has spearheaded the months-long effort, is expected to face an expanded Taliban negotiating team headed by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban’s former deputy minister of foreign affairs.

Neither side has stated how long they expect the meetings to last or the details of what will be discussed.

Analysts say this round will likely see the Taliban push for the removal of its leaders from a UN travel blacklist, matched with pressure from the US for the militants to open a dialogue with the Afghan government. “Both sides are going into this process with open minds and a sense of urgency as the weather gets warmer and fighting season draws closer,” Graeme Smith, a consultant based with International Crisis Group, said. The Taliban have steadfastly refused to negotiate with Kabul, whom they dismiss as “puppets”. They have also stated that, without a withdrawal timetable, further progress is “impossible”. 

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