Washington - The White House is playing up prospects of a peace deal with the Taliban that would allow thousands of American troops to be brought back from the country prior to the 2020 election.

US President Donald Trump said his meeting at Bedminister golf course in New Jersey with top advisers on Friday went “very well.”

Trump met with Defence Secretary Mark Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, plus national security adviser John Bolton and US special envoy for the talks with the Taliban Zalmay Khalilzad.

“Discussions centered around our ongoing negotiations and eventual peace and reconciliation agreement with the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan. The meeting went very well, and negotiations are proceeding,” deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said in a statement.

Trump added on Twitter: “Just completed a very good meeting on Afghanistan. Many on the opposite side of this 19-year war, and us, are looking to make a deal – if possible!”

Expectations are rising for a deal in which the United States can start withdrawing some of its 14,000 soldiers from Afghanistan after a two-decade war that has turned into a stalemate.

Washington is keen to end its involvement in Afghanistan, where it has spent more than $1 trillion and Trump has said since the start of his presidency that he wants troops out.

But the Taliban would have to commit to various security guarantees, in return. Washington wants to try to ensure that Taliban would not allow Afghanistan to become a jihadist safe haven again.

A US-Taliban agreement would not in itself bring Afghanistan’s war to an end, as the insurgents would still need to make a deal with the US-backed Kabul government. “In continued close cooperation with the government of Afghanistan, we remain committed to achieving a comprehensive peace agreement,” Pompeo said in a statement.

This would include “a reduction in violence and a ceasefire, ensuring that Afghan soil is never again used to threaten the United States or her allies, and bringing Afghans together to work towards peace.”

But US defence officials say significant differences remain between the two sides, despite eighth rounds of talks. And while the US and Taliban claim progress in talks, little has changed for Afghans on the ground.

The United Nations said last year was the deadliest on record, with at least 3,804 civilians including 927 children, killed by the war.

The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said recently that more than 217,000 people had to flee their homes because of fighting during the first seven months of 2019.

That shows there is still a huge need for humanitarian aid across the war-torn nation.

Special envoy Khalilzad is due to travel to Qatar this weekend to finalize details of an agreement with the Taliban.

Meanwhile, Afghan Taliban officials said on Saturday the killing of the brother of their leader in a bomb attack would not derail talks with the United States.

Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada was not in the mosque near Quetta when a bomb went off but his younger brother, Hafiz Ahmadullah, was leading Friday prayers and was among four people killed, several Taliban officials have said.

“If someone thinks martyring our leaders would stop us from our goal they’re living in a fool’s paradise,” a Taliban leader said by telephone from an undisclosed location. “We are close to our goals,” he said, referring to the talks with the United States. He declined to be identified.

‘FINAL ROUND’

A second Taliban official, speaking from Doha, where the Taliban have a political office and where the talks have been held, said preparations were being made for a meaningful final round. “We’ve solved most issues, just a few remaining,” said the official, who also declined to be identified.

The Taliban were considering a ceasefire in places from which US forces withdraw, the second official said.

Some 14,000 US troops remain in Afghanistan, training and advising Afghan security forces and conducting counterinsurgency operations.

The war has ground into a stalemate with casualties rising among civilians as well as combatants.