Taliban Meets Pakistani Officials in Islamabad

August 23, 2020 at 2:43 p.m. EDT
FILE - In this May 28, 2019 file photo, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group’s top political leader, second left, arrives with other members of the Taliban delegation for talks in Moscow, Russia. The top Taliban negotiator says the group’s chief has finalized a negotiating team that will have sweeping decision-making powers in upcoming intra-Afghan negotiations. The Taliban official spoke to The Associated Press on Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020.
FILE – In this May 28, 2019 file photo, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group’s top political leader, second left, arrives with other members of the Taliban delegation for talks in Moscow, Russia. The top Taliban negotiator says the group’s chief has finalized a negotiating team that will have sweeping decision-making powers in upcoming intra-Afghan negotiations. The Taliban official spoke to The Associated Press on Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020. (Alexander Zemlianichenko, File/Associated Press)

ISLAMABAD — The Taliban’s chief has finalized a negotiating team that is to have sweeping decision-making powers in upcoming intra-Afghan negotiations, the top Taliban negotiator told The Associated Press on Sunday.

Maulvi Hibatullah Akhunzada hand-picked the 20-member team, 13 of whom come from the Taliban’s leadership council — around half of the council’s total members.

The negotiating team will have the authority to set agendas, decide strategy and even sign agreements with the political leadership of the Afghan government in Kabul, lead Taliban negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai told AP.

“This is a powerful team … All decision-making powers are with the negotiation team,” Stanikzai said.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who signed the peace deal with Washington on Feb. 29 paving the way for America’s troop withdrawal and the eventual intra-Afghan negotiations, will keep the powerful post as head of the Taliban’s political office in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar.

The critical intra-Afghan talks, which were laid out in the peace deal signed in February, were expected to begin Aug. 20 but have been plagued by relentless delays.

The talks are intended to set a road map for post-war Afghanistan. They will include a permanent cease-fire, the rights of minorities and women, constitutional changes and the fate of tens of thousands of armed Taliban and militias loyal to Kabul-allied warlords.

The first round of talks seemed imminent earlier this month, when a traditional grand council or jirga approved the immediate release of the remaining Taliban prisoners in government custody. Some diplomats optimistically told the AP that negotiations could begin as early as Aug. 10. But the government then defied the jirga decision, demanding the Taliban free 22 commandos in their custody before freeing the remaining Taliban.

“We will be ready for negotiations in the near future,” Stanikzai, the lead Taliban negotiator, said. “Now we urge the U.S. to convince the other side to end their excuses, release prisoners as soon as possible and come to the negotiation table.”

Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban’s political office, said last week that the Taliban had freed the 1,000 prisoners they had promised, and that he was not aware of the commandos.

According to the deal Washington signed with the Taliban, the Afghan government was to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, and the Taliban were to free 1,000 government and military men.

Under the U.S.-Taliban agreement, the withdrawal of American troops does not hinge on the success of intra-Afghan talks, but instead on commitments made by the Taliban to combat terrorist groups and ensure Afghanistan is not used as a staging ground for attacks on the U.S. and its allies.

Since signing the agreement, the Taliban have held to a promise not to attack U.S. and NATO troops, but have carried out regular attacks on Afghan security forces.

By November, less than 5,000 U.S. soldiers are set to be in Afghanistan, down from about 13,000 prior to the February agreement.

On Sunday Baradar, head of the Taliban political office, was travelling to Pakistan from Doha, just days after Islamabad issued fresh orders implementing the 2015 U.N. sanctions against the Taliban as well as a number of other outlawed groups. It wasn’t immediately clear who Baradar would be meeting or the purpose of his visit, but Pakistan has been pressing for an early start to intra-Afghan negotiations.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. 

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Taliban negotiators visit Pakistan to talk Afghan peace push

Associated Presss
24 August 2020
Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi speaks to reporters at the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. Qureshi told reporters he would meet with a Taliban delegation on Tuesday. Islamabad’s role was only to “facilitate the peace process” but it’s up to Afghans to decide the way forward, he said. A Taliban political team arrived in Pakistan on Monday. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

ISLAMABAD (AP) — A Taliban political team arrived in Pakistan on Monday as efforts appear to be ramping up to get negotiations underway between the Afghan government and the insurgents.

The start of the talks, envisaged under a U.S.-Taliban peace agreement signed in February, was hampered by a series of delays that have frustrated Washington. Some had expected the negotiations to begin earlier this month.

The Taliban delegation, led by their political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, will discuss with Pakistan’s leaders the “recent developments in Afghanistan’s peace process,” as well as “relaxation and facilitation of people’s movement and trade between the two neighboring countries,” tweeted Suhail Shaheen, the spokesman for the Taliban political office.

Islamabad is thought to wield influence over the Taliban, though there is mistrust on the part of some within the movement toward Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told reporters he would meet with the Taliban delegation on Tuesday. Islamabad’s role is only to “facilitate the peace process,” and it’s up to Afghans to decide the way forward, he said.

“The majority of Afghans believe the only way forward is through reconciliation but the decision to reconcile has to be taken by Afghans themselves,” Qureshi said.

The visit comes a day after the Taliban chief announced a powerful negotiating team that includes nearly half of the Taliban leadership council and has the power to set agendas, decide strategy and even sign agreements with the Kabul government. That Taliban team is headed by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai.

Earlier, Pakistan approved several orders to implement U.N. sanctions against a number of outlawed groups, including the Taliban. The sanctions restrict travel, freeze assets, limit fundraising and outlaw weapons sales. At the time, Shaheen told The Associated Press the restrictions could hurt the peace process.

The U.N. has allowed travel for the purpose of peace negotiations, but only for a limited number of Taliban figures.

Islamabad has had an uneasy relationship with Baradar, who spent eight years in jail in Pakistan until his release in 2018. He and Washington’s peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad negotiated the U.S.-Taliban deal and signed it on Feb. 29. The deal has been touted as Afghanistan’s best chance at peace in four decades.

The deal also sets conditions — linked to Taliban commitments to fight terrorism — for the U.S. troop pullout from Afghanistan, which would end the longest-ever U.S. military engagement. U.S. troops have begun withdrawing and by November, fewer than 5,000 American soldiers are expected to still be in Afghanistan, down from 13,000 when the deal was signed.

The Kabul government and the Taliban are deadlocked over outstanding prisoner releases. Kabul insists the Taliban free 22 Afghan commandos they hold captive while the Taliban demand the release of a final 320 Taliban prisoners held in Afghan jails.

The release of the remaining prisoners was approved by a traditional Afghan council, or Loya Jirga, called by President Ashraf Ghani earlier this month. The council approved the immediate release of the prisoners but later the government announced the Taliban were still holding Afghan soldiers and halted the process.

Abdullah Abdullah, a former presidential candidate who has long been at odds with Ghani, urged the immediate release of the last Taliban prisoners. He said the jirga was the final arbiter.

“We are calling for the completion of the prisoner exchange, & immediate beginning of the intra-Afghan talks to put an end to agony of a nation,” Abdullah, who heads the High Council for National Reconciliation, the body charged with engaging the Taliban, tweeted Monday.

It is not clear how Pakistan could break the impasse. Both Kabul and Washington would want to see a reduction in violence going into the talks.

The Taliban have held to their promise not to attack U.S. and NATO troops but have been staging near-daily attacks on Afghan government forces. They say a permanent cease-fire will be part of the negotiations once they begin.

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Associated Press writer Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.

Taliban Meets Pakistani Officials in Islamabad