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Talks with Taliban making ‘very little progress’ as militant group gains momentum, says top Afghan official

Abdullah Abdullah, an Afghan official who leads the High Council for National Reconciliation, told CNN in an exclusive interview that talks between the two parties had made “very little progress” and were happening at a “very slow pace”.

Speaking from his residence in Kabul, the Afghan capital, Abdullah acknowledged that the Taliban has “gained momentum” following weeks of the militants releasing propaganda videos from military bases, claiming that Afghan forces had fled.

The Taliban has accused the Afghan government of not engaging with the intra-Afghan peace negotiations in Doha. “Our intention was to make some progress, but the opposite side was not interested in the peace talks,” Taliban political office spokesman Mohammad Naeem said in a video statement on the intra-Afghan negotiations, which was released yesterday and obtained by CNN.

Naeem accused the Afghan government’s negotiating team of being incomplete during May’s peace talks in Doha, due to some of its members being “physically present in the battlefield” and “busy in war.”

Last week, Deborah Lyons, the UN’s special envoy on Afghanistan, said that 50 of Afghanistan’s 370 districts had fallen to Taliban militants since May.

While Abdullah didn’t directly blame the Taliban’s gains on the upcoming US withdrawal, he told CNN that “had it been our choice … we would have thought differently.”

When asked about the Taliban’s future prospects of overthrowing the Afghan government, he said “it will not happen,” though there was no “guarantee” that at some point in the future, the country wouldn’t become a haven for terrorists, as it had been before the US war on terror began.

“The Taliban have failed. They promised that they will delink with al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. We don’t have many signs of that. So that’s the danger for us, as well as for the region.”

When asked about a US intelligence report which said the Afghan government could fall within six months, Abdullah said that it “doesn’t look like that for me,” but that “it should be a warning that has to be taken seriously.”

Abdullah hailed Biden’s commitment of $3.3 billion dollars to support Afghanistan’s security, but admitted that “it will not address all of the challenges in the country.”

Beyond the risk posed by the Taliban, Abdullah said that “unity amongst the political leaders” of Afghanistan was needed if a peaceful solution is to be found and a collapse in government avoided.

Despite the relatively downbeat tone, Abdullah did tell CNN that he didn’t believe the country could go back to how it was in 2001, before the US started what would become its longest military campaign.

“Too much has been gained. There might be temporary setbacks here and there, which is what we are witnessing but part of those gains are irreversible.”

The US could complete its formal troop withdrawal from Afghanistan within days, according to multiple US officials, leaving only up to 1,000 troops in the country to help secure the US embassy in Kabul and the city’s airport.

Abdullah joined Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for talks last week at the White House with Biden. According to a White House readout, US and Afghan leaders agreed that despite the US withdrawal, a “strong bilateral partnership” would continue, with “enduring” US support for the Afghan people and for the country’s security forces.

However, alarm bells are ringing over what may befall the country’s people in the coming months as the Taliban offensive gathers pace and Afghan security forces are left without the support of US and NATO air power.

Following Biden’s announcement in April that most US forces would be gone by September 11, NATO said it would start its own withdrawal of troops by May 1, to be completed “within a few months.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that the US withdrawal would not necessarily mean the end of NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, though some NATO allies have already begun pulling out their troops.

Once complete, the US withdrawal will mark the end of its “forever war” in Afghanistan — a conflict that began in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on US soil and has inflicted a heavy cost in the two decades since.

Biden’s decision in April followed on from an earlier undertaking by former US President Donald Trump that his country’s forces would leave this year, despite concerns from senior advisers over the security of American diplomats there.

Saleem Mehsud and Hannah Ritchie contributed to this report. Luke McGee and Laura Smith-Spark wrote from London.

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