KABUL/PESHAWAR (Reuters) – U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has held a meeting in Doha with the head of the new Taliban team due to open peace talks with a team representing the Afghan government, the Islamist insurgent group said on Tuesday.
The negotiations, the result of an agreement between Washington and the Taliban, are to begin in Doha after the release of the last half-dozen or so of 5,000 Taliban prisoners.
The Afghan negotiators had been expected to fly from Kabul to Doha this week, but are awaiting a signal from the Afghan government that the release – to which Western governments have objected – is going ahead.
In Doha, the head of the Taliban’s political office, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and the new head of the Taliban’s negotiating team, Abdul Hakim Haqqani, met with Khalilzad and Qatar’s deputy prime minister on Monday, Taliban spokesman Dr Mohammad Naeem said in a statement shared on Twitter.
“Issues related to the prisoners’ release and immediate start of the intra-Afghan talks were discussed,” Naeem said.
Talks with American officials had for the last two years been led by Baradar, who signed a peace deal with Washington this year that paved the way for an international troop withdrawal and intra-Afghan negotiations.
Last week, however, Taliban supreme leader Haibatullah Akhunzada announced that a new, 21-member team would be headed by Haqqani and not Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban, who has been left out entirely.
Three Taliban commanders based in Afghanistan told Reuters that senior fighters on the ground had in recent weeks expressed reservations about Baradar’s dominance in the talks.
However, Taliban officials told Reuters the team had been changed to give it power to take decisions on the spot.
Haqqani, the Taliban’s former shadow chief justice, also heads its powerful council of religious scholars, according to two senior Taliban officials who did not want to named.
One official said Akhunzada trusted Haqqani more than anyone else in the group: “(His) presence basically means our supreme leader himself will attend the peace talks.”
A diplomat following the peace process from Kabul told Reuters, on condition of anonymity: “Baradar might be effective, but Haqqani is senior. What we know is this was done to have a more authoritative team that can take the decision over there.”
Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul and Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar; Additional reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad and Rupam Nair in Mumbai; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Kevin Liffey
Afghan negotiators wait in Kabul as start of peace talks faces delays: sources
KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan negotiators have pushed back a planned trip to Doha for long-awaited peace talks with the Taliban as logistical issues are still being worked on in the Qatari capital, delaying the start of the talks, a government and a diplomatic source said on Monday.
Negotiators had initially expected to fly to Doha late last week in anticipation of talks starting as soon as Monday.
However the team would not leave on Monday, one government and one diplomatic source told Reuters.
One of the sources, a senior government official, said the negotiating team may fly on Tuesday.
He added that the cause of the delay was partly due to the Taliban and officials in Doha sorting out final logistical questions over the opening ceremony, including who should be given time to speak and how flags should be arranged.
These matters carry symbolic weight for the two sides, each of whom have questioned each other’s legitimacy to present themselves as governing powers.
The second issue was finalizing plans for around six prisoners to leave Afghan prisons and be transferred to Qatar, in a compromise struck with the Taliban last week, the two sources said. Western governments have objected to their release.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that there were no “major issues” causing the delay, adding that they were waiting for the six prisoners to be released, but technical teams from both sides were working on the issue.
Major players including United States Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has helped usher the talks since Washington signed a troop withdrawal pact with the Taliban in February, are also in Doha in advance of the talks.
Reporting by Hamid Shalizi; additional reporting by Charlotte Greenfield and Abdul Qadi Sediqi; writing by Charlotte Greenfield, Editing by William Maclean