Two US military personnel were killed Wednesday in Afghanistan, NATO announced, as potentially decisive talks between the US and the Taliban on the future of the war-wracked country are set to resume in Qatar.
The identity of the two service members “killed in action” was not released, pending notification of their next of kin, Resolute Support, the US-led NATO mission in Afghanistan, said in a statement.
The deaths bring to at least 14 the number of members of the US military to be killed in action in Afghanistan this year, just as Washington is seeking a way out of its longest war.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the top US negotiator on Afghanistan, has headed to Doha and says he is ready to conclude peace talks with the Taliban.
The negotiations are expected to focus on establishing a timeline for the US withdrawal in exchange for a “reduction in violence” and a Taliban pledge not to protect the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda.
Khalilzad concluded the eighth round of talks with the Taliban last week, and sounded optimistic when he tweeted that he hoped that 2019 would be the final year that Afghanistan is at war.
The conflict began nearly 18 years ago in the wake of the September 11 attacks on US soil, when a US-led coalition invaded to oust the Taliban, who were in power in Afghanistan.
After the Doha talks, the veteran diplomat will need to lay the groundwork for peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which would come after any deal with Washington.
The State Department said earlier this week that Khalilzad will head to Afghanistan after his meetings in Qatar to work on setting up those subsequent talks.
– US ‘presence’ still needed –
US President Donald Trump, a vocal critic of the Afghan war before he was elected in 2016, said US forces have been stuck there acting like a “police force.”
He is believed to want to see a withdrawal of most of the more than 13,000 US troops in Afghanistan before November 2020, when he will seek re-election.
But the Republican leader has acknowledged that some of those US forces would have to stay.
“We have to have a presence, yes. The Taliban does not respect the Afghan government,” Trump said earlier this week, adding: “It is a dangerous place and we have to keep an eye on it.”
But a quick withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan could face pushback on Capitol Hill, where some fear the move could create a power vacuum that would only intensify the civil war and allow Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and other such groups room to grow.
Since the war began, some 2,300 American soldiers have died and more than 20,400 have been wounded.
The number of deaths fell sharply after 2014, when the NATO mission was no longer a combat operation.
The US now has some 14,000 troops in Afghanistan — down from a peak of around 100,000 — most of them deployed to train and advise Afghan counterparts.