NATO’s chief and the acting head of the Pentagon said they were encouraged by the progress of peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, after the U.S. special envoy for the conflict-wracked country announced that American and Taliban negotiators had agreed on a draft "framework" for a peace deal seeking to put an end to the 17-year war there.
During a visit to Washington on January 28, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg vowed that the Taliban "will not win on the battlefield, so they have to sit down at the negotiating table."
"Therefore we are encouraged by what we see now, the progress... and talks with Taliban," he added.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan echoed that, saying "I'd say really the takeaway right now: it's encouraging."
Stoltenberg and Shanahan made the comments as Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, said that his five days of talks with Taliban negotiators in Qatar last week were "much better than previous meetings."
Khalilzad told Afghan reporters in Kabul that the sides "made progress on vital issues in our discussions and agreed to agreements in principle on a couple of very important issues.”
"There is a lot more work to be done before we can say we have succeeded in our efforts but I believe for the first time I can say that we have made significant progress," he also said.
The Taliban has also said that "progress" had been made in the talks.
In an interview with The New York Times published earlier in the day, Khalilzad offered more details on the state of the negotiations with the militant group, saying the sides had agreed in principle to the "framework" of a deal.
Under the framework, the militants would agree to prevent Afghan territory from being used by groups such as Al-Qaeda to stage terrorist attacks, Khalilzad said.
That could then lead to a full pullout of U.S. combat troops, but only in return for the Taliban’s entering talks with the Afghan government and agreeing to a lasting cease-fire.
"We have a draft of the framework that has to be fleshed out before it becomes an agreement," Khalilzad told the newspaper in Kabul.
Meanwhile, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called on the Taliban to enter "serious" negotiations with the Kabul government and "accept Afghans' demand for peace."
"Either they join the great nation of Afghanistan with a united voice, or be the tool of foreign objectives," he said in a televised address.
Backed by Western nations, Ghani’s government has struggled to fend off a resurgent Taliban and other militant groups.
The Taliban has so far refused to hold direct negotiations with Afghan government officials, whom they dismiss as U.S. "puppets." The militants have said they will only begin talks with the government once a firm date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops has been agreed.
U.S. officials have said President Donald Trump wants to withdraw about half of the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Stoltenberg said it was too early to speculate about the number of NATO troops that would remain.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on January 26 that there was "progress" in the peace talks, but he denied earlier reports of an agreement on a cease-fire.
Until the withdrawal of international troops was hammered out, "progress on other issues is impossible," he said.
Another round of talks between the Taliban and the United States was tentatively set for February 25, the Reuters news agency reported.