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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is weighing a possible deal with the Taliban that would refer to the insurgents by the name of their former hard-line regime, which Washington has previously rejected as illegitimate, two foreign diplomats and a Taliban source told NBC News.
If approved in a final agreement, the phrase “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” would be greeted as a diplomatic coup by the Taliban, who have presented themselves as a government in waiting since they were ousted from power in a U.S.-led intervention in 2001. But Afghan officials and skeptics of the negotiations have long viewed any reference to the former Taliban regime as repugnant, and a potentially damaging concession.
In a draft of the proposed U.S.-Taliban agreement, the insurgents are referred to as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” but the word “Taliban” also appears in the text, two foreign diplomats familiar with the discussions told NBC News.
The formulation is an attempt at a compromise as the Taliban uses its former regime name to refer to the country.
A senior Taliban figure with ties to the insurgency’s leader, Hibatullah Akhunzada, told NBC News that the group’s negotiators had insisted on the inclusion of the “Islamic Emirate” wording.
The U.S. State Department declined to comment.
The Taliban have continued to use the Emirate name to reinforce their view that their old regime is the legitimate government of Afghanistan, and not the one that succeeded it after the U.S. invasion of 2001 in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States and now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute think tank, said the proposed language was part of a pattern of U.S. concessions to the Taliban, and could provide a recruiting tool for the insurgents.
“Allowing the Taliban to refer to themselves as the Islamic Emirate, even in parentheses, allows them to build the narrative that they forced the U.S. to negotiate an exit from Afghanistan just as the mujahideen had forced the Soviets out,” he said, referring to fighters who battled the former Soviet Union's occupying army in the 1980s.
“If the administration is eager to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, it would have done better to announce a no-deal exit than allowing the Taliban such a huge propaganda victory.”
The debate over the wording is just one element of a possible deal between the Taliban and the Trump administration that would lay out the terms for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan after almost 18 years. In return, the Taliban would pledge to cut all ties to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
U.S. officials also are pushing the Taliban to agree to start peace negotiations with the Afghan government, which the militants have long dismissed as a “puppet” regime and refused to recognize.
After 10 months of talks, U.S. presidential envoy Zalmay Khalilzad entered into a ninth round of discussions with Taliban representatives Friday in Doha after expressing optimism an accord was close at hand.
Taliban sources told NBC News that their negotiating team Monday conferred via Skype with its leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the insurgency’s leader Akhunzada, before meeting again with the U.S. delegation later Monday.
A previous attempt at peace talks with the Taliban during the Obama administration collapsed early on partly over the insurgency’s use of the “Islamic Emirate” wording. After the U.S. agreed to permit the Taliban to open an office in Qatar, the Taliban described the office as an embassy and representatives spoke before cameras in front of a “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” sign, infuriating the Afghan government.
The former Taliban regime, which was in power between 1996 and 2001, was recognized by only three governments and was known for its repressive rule based on a hard-line interpretation of Islamic law, including draconian measures barring girls from attending school and women from working outside the home.
Afghan officials expressed serious concerns about the proposed wording.
The Taliban “is a small group terrorizing the Afghans and must be dealt with as a group,” Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesperson for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, said. “They may try to claim other names but the Americans must not accept their demands, the Afghan government will strongly oppose that.”
Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, Royha Rahmani, said she has not seen a text of the U.S.-Taliban agreement under discussion. But she said the title associated with the former Taliban regime represents a legacy of authoritarian rule and would be totally unacceptable under any future peace talks between the group and the Afghan government.
“Islamic Emirates is not simply a name but a whole system of governance. The Afghan people have lived under this system and unanimously refuse it,” Rahmani said.
Preserving the current democratic system “is a red line in peace negotiations.”
Agreeing to the “Islamic Emirate” in the text of a U.S.-Taliban deal could be a way of allowing the parties “to identify themselves however they wish” and “it doesn’t mean others are recognizing their legitimacy,” said former U.S. diplomat Laurel Miller, now director of the Asia program at the International Crisis Group think tank.
But she added: “You can’t ignore the fact that there is this tremendous symbolic significance that the U.S. enters into an agreement that has that wording.”
Taliban sources said the two sides are close to an agreement outlining the withdrawal of U.S. troops and that the insurgency was ready to halt attacks on U.S. forces, though it rejected the idea of a ceasefire with the Afghan government.
Under the proposed deal, the United States would cease military operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Taliban would not target U.S. and NATO forces, Taliban sources told NBC News
“As per our agreement, we would continue our operations against the Afghan government,” one Taliban representative familiar with the discussions said.
President Donald Trump’s top negotiator, however, rejected reports that the United States would no longer come to the aid of the Afghan government’s security forces once Washington agrees on a withdrawal deadline with the Taliban.
“No one should be intimidated or fooled by propaganda!” Khalilzad tweeted Monday. “Let me be clear: We will defend Afghan forces now and after any agreement w/ the Talibs. All sides agree Afghanistan’s future will be determined in intra-Afghan negotiations.”
If a U.S.-Taliban deal is clinched, Khalilzad hopes to see peace talks begin promptly between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The initial round of talks are tentatively planned to be held in Oslo, possibly with Khalilzad presiding, foreign diplomats and former U.S. officials said. But the details of how the U.S.-Taliban agreement would be linked to possible peace talks remain unclear.
While the Taliban and the United States move closer to an agreement, Ghani — whose government has not taken part in the discussions in Doha — is vowing to go ahead with Sept. 28 elections, even if peace talks get underway with the insurgents.
In Washington, some lawmakers are warning the White House that such an agreement could end up aggravating the civil war and reviving al Qaeda and the Islamic State militant group.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., usually a strong supporter of Trump, plans to introduce legislation that would require the U.S. government to certify that the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan was not putting America’s national security at risk.
“There is no substitute for American forces in Afghanistan to protect the American homeland from radical Islam. There will be another 9/11 if we pull the plug,” Graham told Fox News on Tuesday. “If you don't believe me, ask the generals in the intelligence community.”
The senator said he had spoken to the president about the issue and that Trump “understands the need for a counterterrorism force “ to remain in the country to counter al Qaeda and ISIS.
Dan De Luce and Abigail Williams reported from Washington, Mushtaq Yusufzai from Peshawar, Pakistan, and Ahmed Mengli from Kabul, Afghanistan.