Afghan officials hopeful Taliban peace talks begin next week

Afghan officials hopeful Taliban peace talks begin next week

Highly-anticipated peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban could begin as early as next week after being repeated delays amid disputes over a prisoner swap of hundreds of Taliban fighters who have been linked to deadly attacks since the war began nearly two decades ago.

The talks appeared to be close on several occasions dating back to March, but Afghan officials now say the time has come to begin the process, which follows on from a deal the Trump administration struck with the radical Islamist militant movement in February.

“I can say with relative confidence that the intra-Afghan talks will begin next week,” Abdullah Abdullah, who heads Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, told a Kabul-based think tank Thursday.

While the government of President Ashraf Ghani has complained in the past about being sidelined in the U.S.-Taliban talks, Mr. Abdullah said Kabul is now “prepared for the talks with a firm determination to represent the strong and united voice of the Afghan people for a durable and dignified peace.”

Afghanistan’s top peace negotiator offered a similar message to a Washington audience Thursday, predicting that “big progress” can be expected in the talks as early as next week.

“We are much closer to the start of a piece negotiation than we have ever been before,” Afghanistan’s Acting Foreign Minister Mohammed Haneef Atmar said during a virtual event hosted by the U.S. Institute for Peace.

The talks are expected to establish a plan to rebuild post-war Afghanistan and 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 power-sharing deal is also key to the Pentagon’s hopes of drawing down more of the nearly 9,000 U.S. combat troops still in the country, and fulfill a major campaign promise for Mr. Trump.

“We are optimistic that next week we will be making a big progress in this respect,” Mr. Atmar said.

A February peace deal between the U.S. and Taliban opened the door to the U.S.’ troop withdrawal from the country and eventual intra-Afghan negotiations.

Under the deal, the Taliban vowed to block outside terrorist groups from operating in Afghanistan in exchange for a Trump administration commitment to draw down the 13,000 American troops to about 8,600.

The Taliban also agreed to not allow Afghanistan to become a base of operations for terrorist groups, and it also agreed to halt attacks on U.S. personnel. But the deal has not slowed the tempo of deadly exchanges between the Taliban and the Afghan army.

Just this week, the government reported a wave of attacks across the country that killed at least 12 dead and wounded scores, including a Taliban truck bombing in the country’s north that targeted a commando base for Afghan forces.

Mr. Atmar explained that the negotiations will be hosted by countries that strongly support Afghanistan’s peace process. “This will also be important for further building of regional consensus and support-based peace process,” he said.

Earlier this week, the Taliban’s leader formally named a negotiating team that is to have wide-ranging decision powers in the highly-anticipated negotiations.

The 21-member team will have the authority to establish the agenda during the negotiations, make strategy decisions and sign agreements with the political leadership of the Afghan government, lead Taliban negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai told the Associated Press.

Although the talks could crumble in the coming days, the development marks a significant stepping stone towards peace as the Trump administration races to accomplish one of his key campaign promises, to bring troops home from America’s longest war.

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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