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U.S.-Taliban talks for Afghan peace gain steam, but Taliban still preparing for war

Afghanistan Peace Talks
A Feb. 25, 2019 photo released by Qatar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs shows representatives from that country, the United States and the Afghan Taliban holding talks in Doha. U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, is second from the left, and the Deputy Commander of the Taliban Movement for Political Affairs, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, is fifth from the right. AP/Handout

Kabul, Afghanistan -- The Afghan Taliban and the United States have resumed high-level talks in Doha, Qatar, aimed at ending America's longest involvement in any war. The U.S. envoy to the Afghanistan peace talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, has met the Taliban's political leader and co-founder of the Islamic insurgency, whose mere presence in this round of talks could indicate headway. But even as the talks enter a new, more serious phase, the Taliban is preparing its forces to wage war.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar is a respected figure among the Taliban. He is thought to bring decision making authority to the negotiating table. He arrived in Doha "after a formal invitation by the Foreign Minister of Qatar and in a private airplane sent by" Qatar, "where he was warmly received," according to a statement released by the Taliban.

The objective of this round of talks is to hammer out some of the details of a broad "roadmap" for peace that was discussed in previous meetings. At the heart of the negotiations is when, and under what circumstances the U.S. will pull its troops out of Afghanistan.

The conversation has taken place thus far with the notable absence of any Afghan government representatives. The Taliban refuses to meet Afghan government officials, as it considers the administration a puppet regime of the United States.

Mullah Baradar's meaningful presence

Nazar Muhammad Mutamaeen, a political analyst and former official under the Taliban regime toppled by the U.S. invasion in 2001, told CBS News that "the difference in this round of talks" is Baradar's presence.

The elder militant was once the deputy of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban's supreme leader who died in 2013. He was freed by Pakistan -- in an effort to boost the peace talks -- after more than a decade in prison following his 2010 arrest by U.S. and Pakistani forces.   

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Mutamaeen said that with Baradar at the table, "the current Taliban representatives taking part in the negotiations are powerful and authoritative… capable of making decisions without wasting time going back to their leaders."

Khalilzad said on Tuesday, after meeting Baradar, that the talks represented a "significant moment."

The sticking points

The biggest point still under negotiation is the timetable for the withdrawal of the roughly 12,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan -- and in return, when the Taliban will agree to guarantee that Afghan territory will not be used as a terrorist safe haven to plot attacks on the United States or its allies.

When in the process the Taliban will accept a ceasefire and stop attacking Afghan forces -- and engage in direct talks with the Afghan government -- are also key topics on the agenda.

The talks in Qatar were scheduled to go through Wednesday, but they could be extended if needed.

"Once an agreement is made in the external aspect of talks, which is the pull-out of foreign forces, then we can speak about the internal aspect of peace talks with the Afghan government," said Sohail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban's political office in Doha.

Talking peace, preparing for war

While the U.S.-Taliban discussions may be gaining steam, Shaheen said there was currently no plan to cancel the group's annual spring offensive against Afghan and allied forces.

"Only if an agreement is reached, and an Islamic government is formed to include all Afghans, will we neither need a spring offensive nor be required to fight," Shaheen said.

The Afghan government, sidelined from the ongoing talks to end the 18-year war, is planning to hold a grand council of tribal elders next month that would include between 2,000 and 3,000 representatives from across the country. The objective would be for the government to get feedback to start laying down the parameters of any eventual talks with the Taliban.

U.S. reduces troop numbers in Afghanistan

President Ashraf Ghani, who is seeking a second term in elections to be held in July, said in his nomination speech that he would, "work for peace on behalf of a dignified and a painful nation, but we will not beg for peace from anyone."

The United Nations released a report this week which shows the extent to which regular Afghans have borne the brunt of the suffering through this war. Among other grim statistics, the report found "the highest recorded number of boys and girls killed in the conflict during a single year" in 2018.

In total, the UN's Afghan mission said 3,804 civilians were killed last year alone, and another 7,189 injured left injured, "representing a five percent increase in overall civilian casualties and an 11 percent increase in civilian deaths compared to 2017."

The U.N. blamed 63 percent of those casualties on "Anti-Government Elements (AGEs)," with the Taliban's owning a 37 percent share of the violence.