By Tahir Khan
ISLAMABAD – The Afghan Taliban have decided upon three conditions to attend an eagerly awaited U.S.-proposed conference in Turkey: The conference must be short, the agenda should not include decision-making on critical issues, and the Taliban delegation should be low level, a senior Taliban leader told VOA Tuesday.
“Our leadership has proposed that the Istanbul meeting should not be longer than three days,” said the leader who did not want to be identified as he is not allowed to speak on the record.
Another senior Taliban leader confirmed the news when approached by VOA.
The conference, to be hosted jointly by the United Nations, Turkey, and Qatar, was first proposed by the United States in April, days after President Joe Biden announced that foreign forces would leave Afghanistan by September of this year. No date has been announced.
It was one of several proposed conferences involving the Taliban, the Afghan government, and regional countries designed to give momentum to the peace talks between the Taliban and an official Afghan government team in Doha.
A Taliban delegation attended one such conference in Moscow but refused to attend the conference in Turkey, saying they were deliberating on this and other key issues.
The head of the Qatar-based Taliban negotiation team, Sheikh Abdul Hakeem, and several key members of the Taliban’s Qatar office, traveled to the region to consult with the group’s chief, Sheikh Hibatullah Akhundzada, and some members of the Taliban leadership council. Hakeem was accompanied by Mullah Fazil, Mullah Shireen and Mullah Abdul Manan, all negotiation team members. They also are all members of the Rehbari Shura (leadership council).
Those consultations, according to the Taliban leader, went on for a month and concluded last week.
Afghan media reported the deliberations were being conducted in Pakistan, where according to the Afghan government, most of the Taliban leadership are living.
In a recent interview with German news website Der Spiegel, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, confirmed this claim.
“If this peace effort doesn’t succeed, and if there is no agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Pakistan will suffer. Pakistan will be blamed because so much of the Taliban’s leadership lives in Pakistan,” Khalilzad said.
Pakistan says it is using its influence on the Afghan Taliban to help the peace efforts in Afghanistan. The militant group’s Istanbul decision is also a result of Pakistani and Qatari efforts, among other countries.
“The Taliban leaders were basically not in favor of participation in the Istanbul conference, but they said they will attend with conditions and on request of Pakistan and Qatar,” the Taliban leader said.
The leader, who was privy to internal consultations, did not give details as to who will represent the Taliban.
The spokesman for the Afghan team, Nader Nadery, said their side was unaware of this development.
“Nothing officially shared with us yet,” Nadery said in response to a query.
The United States, Turkey and Afghanistan had proposed that at least one or more senior leaders other than the representatives of the Taliban negotiation team in Doha lead the Taliban team in Istanbul. Officials from these countries have said in background briefings they do not believe the Qatar office envoys, including Mullah Baradar, have the authority to make decisions in the talks.
The U.S. had proposed a 10-day meeting so the Taliban and Afghan government team could hash out their differences and then either make some critical decisions toward peace-making or strive for a breakthrough in otherwise deadlocked talks.
The Taliban leader said their senior leadership did not want Istanbul to be a decision-making platform, and they did not want a specific agenda for the meeting.
When asked if the leadership had made a decision about the cease-fire, he said there is nothing about the cease-fire so far, the Taliban will not declare a cease-fire at the moment, and it will it not be decided during the intra-Afghan negotiations.
Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem had earlier said they would not participate in any conference that would make decisions about Afghanistan.
Turkey, Qatar and the United Nations had planned to co-convene the conference in Istanbul, from April 24 to May 4, with the participation of the representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban to “add momentum to the negotiations that started in Doha last September to achieve a just and lasting peace in Afghanistan,” according to a joint statement issued by the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
The conference was earlier scheduled to begin on April 16 and last 10 days, but it was postponed because of the lack of Taliban participation.
At the time, the Taliban complained the organizers had not shared details of the meeting. This time, they say, Turkey has kept them in the loop.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR) pressed for talks with the Taliban, and they have finalized their peace proposals expected to be announced during the conference.
A Pakistani delegation met the Taliban political representatives in Qatar in the last week of April and pressed them to attend the Istanbul conference with their own proposal.
“The Pakistani delegation insisted that the Taliban should participate in the Istanbul conference with their own future plan as leaders of the Kabul administration [President Ghani] and chairman of HCNR Dr. Abdullah Abdullah have prepared future plans and are scheduled to unveil them in the Istanbul meeting,” the Taliban leader said.