The newly-appointed U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, recently concluded a trip to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar aimed at setting the stage for talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Mr. Khalilzad met with Taliban representatives in Qatar in early October, following several statements made by the insurgent group reiterating its interest in direct talks with the U.S.

The Taliban confirmed this meeting later. “The representatives of the [Taliban] identified the presence of foreign forces as the greatest obstacle to true peace and solving problems,” a statement read. In reports that followed, the Taliban indicated that the U.S. envoy agreed to discuss the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan — a demand that has been made frequently by the Taliban as a precondition to hold talks with the Afghan government.

However, the High Peace Council of Afghanistan, a body set up to conduct negotiations, dismissed the Taliban’s claim of withdrawal of forces as propaganda. The U.S. State Department refused to comment on the claim, reiterating the standard position that the peace process is “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned”.

The security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated significantly after most U.S. troops pulled out in 2014. While the remaining foreign forces have largely restricted roles, they have been strategic allies to the Afghan troops in the fight against the Taliban and the Islamic State.

“If the foreign forces leave Afghanistan, the situation will get worse,” predicted Hamed, a 25-year-old Afghan soldier.

“Even before the Americans and NATO arrived, the Taliban were here committing the same atrocities they are doing now. The Taliban doesn’t believe in peace, they fire upon schools, they kill government workers, they have no regard for society,” he pointed out. “But now, the presence of the foreign forces fills them with dread, and has kept them away [from government-controlled areas].”

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