KABUL: The US and the Taliban are "close" to a deal that would see the Pentagon slash troop numbers in Afghanistan, the insurgents said Wednesday, although the US military insisted that the country must not become a sanctuary for extremists.
The foes have been meeting in Doha to put the final touches on a historic deal that would see the Taliban make various security guarantees in return for a sharp reduction in the 13,000 or so US troops based in Afghanistan.
"We are close to an agreement. We hope to bring good news for our Muslim and freedom seeking nation soon," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted.
In Washington, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and America's most senior uniformed officer, sounded a note of caution, telling reporters he was not yet using the word "withdrawal" to describe the deal.
"I'm using 'we're going to make sure that Afghanistan is not a sanctuary, and we're going to try to have an effort to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan,'" he said.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper, standing next to Dunford, also said a deal with the Taliban must guarantee that Afghanistan "is no longer a safe haven for terrorists to attack the United States."
US troops were first sent to Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on US soil carried out by Al-Qaeda, which was sheltered by the former Taliban regime.
Washington now wants to end its military involvement and has been talking to the Taliban since at least 2018.
The agreement will centre on the US withdrawing troops in exchange for a Taliban guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a militant safe haven, talks with the Afghan government, and an eventual ceasefire.
Any agreement is going to be "conditions-based," Dunford said, adding that it was premature to talk about how a US counter-terrorism force in Afghanistan might look.
- Afghan government sidelined -
Insurgent leaders were meeting at an undisclosed location along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to review the proposed agreement, a senior Taliban commander in Pakistan told AFP.
"All the Shura (consultation) members have received the draft and they are reading it carefully, yet no go-ahead signal has been given to the Taliban negotiating team in Doha," the Taliban official said.
"It may take a day or two, as Taliban leadership has to take all the commanders into confidence".
The apparent final phase of talks heaves into view the end of an excruciating few months for Afghans, who have watched on largely voiceless as US negotiators cut a deal with the Taliban while largely sidelining the government of President Ashraf Ghani.
However US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad will come to Kabul in "one or two" days to brief Ghani on the deal, said Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for the Afghan leader.
- 'Remaining points' -
Most of the US negotiating was led by Afghan-born Khalilzad, a fluent Pashto and Dari speaker who has spent recent months shuttling between world capitals in a bid to build support for a deal with the hardliners known for their extreme interpretations of Sharia law.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told reporters in Doha on Tuesday that a deal could be expected "as soon as the remaining points are finalised", as negotiators wrangled over individual words and phrases in the draft.
Meanwhile Amnesty International called on the United States and the Taliban to also consider human rights.
"Any peace agreement must not ignore (Afghans') voices, the voices of the victims," Omar Waraich, Amnesty's deputy South Asia director, told reporters in Kabul.
"They must not ignore their calls for justice and accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious human rights violations."
While the Taliban are notorious for numerous human rights abuses, violations have also been perpetrated by pro-government forces.