Saudi participation in Afghan talks significant — Ex-Taliban minister

Seen here is former Taliban cabinet minister, Mullah Agha Jan Mutasim. Mutasim described the talks in the UAE as an important phase, reasoning that the process now enjoys support from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the UAE. He also termed Pakistan’s participation in the talks and its role as important. (Photo courtesy: Mutasim’s website)
Updated 20 December 2018

Saudi participation in Afghan talks significant — Ex-Taliban minister

  • Mutasim says details of the two-day talks will be clearer going forward
  • US special envoy to meet top leaders from all parties later today

ISLAMABAD: The two-day Afghan peace negotiations, which were held in the UAE, assumed importance because of Saudi Arabia’s participation as both the Taliban and the US acknowledge the Kingdom’s role in the talks, a former Taliban cabinet minister said on Thursday.
Mullah Agha Jan Mutasim, who had served as finance minister during the Taliban rule from 1996 until their ouster in 2001, said that the Taliban have a lot of respect for the Saudi leadership and its government, adding that role played by the Kingdom is the key to the success of the talks.
His comments came a day after the Taliban said that they had wrapped up the two-day meeting in Abu Dhabi with US representatives while reiterating their call for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US-appointed special envoy for Afghan reconciliation, led the US delegation and tweeted on Wednesday that the meetings with Afghan representatives and international had been productive.
Khalilzad, who proceeded to Afghanistan late on Wednesday after a brief stopover in Pakistan, met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah to discuss the details of the talks in Abu Dhabi and the next steps to be taken for an intra-Afghan dialogue. He is set to hold meetings with leaders from the civil society, political parties, and other stakeholders in Afghanistan later on Thursday.
Mutasim, who was one of the close confidantes of the Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar, described the talks in the UAE as an important phase, reasoning that the process now enjoys support from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the UAE. He also termed Pakistan’s participation in the talks and its role as important. 
When asked as to why the Taliban and the US did not reach an agreement, he said that the details of the discussion were unlikely to be made public and that things will be clearer going forward.
“Taliban want to progress on the release of prisoners, recognition of their political office, removing names of senior leaders from the UN sanctions list, and halt to air strikes and nights raids. These will be important confidence-building measures (CBM) ahead of the formal talks. The Taliban will show a positive response if the other side takes some CBMs,” he said.
He added that the UAE talks were mainly focused on building trust and that key issues like a cease-fire and elections will be discussed at a later stage.
Responding to queries seeking reasons for the Taliban’s refusal to talk to Afghan government negotiators — who were also present in Abu Dhabi — he said that both the US and other parties involved wanted the Kabul administration to join the process later.
“Some of the Taliban’s demands are related to the US such as the issue of foreign troops, air strikes, sanctions on the Taliban, and even the reopening of the office. So they await the US’ response first,” Mutasim said.
Mutasim, who has been involved in peace efforts from Turkey, the UAE, and Kabul, was shot and seriously injured in Karachi in 2011 and later moved to Turkey for treatment.
On its part, Washington has also urged the Taliban to reduce violence, avoid attacks in public places, and release foreign and Afghan prisoners in their custody, Mutasim — who once headed the powerful Taliban political commission — said.
Highlighting the difference in the talks held in Qatar and those in the UAE, he said that the presence of the Taliban’s senior leaders — including their former army chief Mullah Fazil and former interior minister Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa — had made the process important.


Top diplomat implicates Trump in explosive impeachment testimony

Updated 21 November 2019

Top diplomat implicates Trump in explosive impeachment testimony

  • Sondland said Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani led the effort at Trump’s direction to pressure Ukraine President Volodymr Zelensky
  • Trump said he barely knew Sondland and had not spoken to him much

WASHINGTON: A senior US diplomat directly implicated President Donald Trump Wednesday in a scheme to force Ukraine to probe a political rival, in bombshell testimony to a televised impeachment hearing.
Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, told lawmakers he followed the president’s orders in seeking a “quid pro quo” deal for Ukraine to investigate Democrat Joe Biden in exchange for a White House summit.
Sondland said Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani led the effort at Trump’s direction to pressure Ukraine President Volodymr Zelensky for the investigation and that top officials in the White House and State Department knew about it.
The unexpectedly damning testimony drew a sharp backlash from Trump who tweeted: “This Witch Hunt must end NOW. So bad for our Country!.”
Trump said he barely knew Sondland and had not spoken to him much, despite the senior diplomat having donated $1 million to his inauguration and testifying that he had spoken to the president some 20 times while ambassador.
Democrats said Sondland’s seven hours of testimony before the House Intelligence Committee had bolstered their case for Trump’s impeachment for what they have labeled “extortion.”
“Today’s testimony is among the most significant evidence to date,” said committee chairman Adam Schiff.
“It goes right to the heart of the issue of bribery as well as other potential high crimes or misdemeanors.”
A succession of Democrats hoping to win the nomination to take on Trump in next year’s election also said the testimony had strengthened the case for impeachment as the issue dominated the opening exchanges in their latest televised primary debate.
Sondland said Trump directed him and two other senior diplomats to work with Giuliani.
From early in the year, Giuliani mounted a pressure campaign on Zelensky’s government to investigate Biden over his son Hunter’s ties to a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, and to probe a conspiracy theory espoused by Trump that Ukraine helped Democrats against him in 2016. Biden is one of the favorites to challenge Trump in next year’s presidential election.
“Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing the investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma,” Sondland told the panel.
“Mr Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky.”
Far from being a “rogue” operation outside normal US diplomatic channels, Sondland told the hearing top officials — including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — were kept constantly informed.
“We followed the president’s orders,” he said.
Like Trump a multimillionaire developer with a chain of high-end hotels, Sondland, who wore a $55,000 Breguet white gold watch to the hearing, fended off pressure from both Democrats and Republicans.
He had not implicated the president in earlier private testimony, when he answered scores of questions by saying he could “not remember.”
But subsequent testimony by other witnesses which had further implicated him in the Ukraine pressure scheme had jolted his memory, he said on Wednesday.
While he confirmed the linkage between the investigations and a White House meeting between Zelensky and Trump, he would not attest to allegations that Trump froze $391 million in aid as well to Ukraine to add pressure on Ukraine.
“I never heard from President Trump that aid was conditioned on an announcement” of the investigations, he said, contradicting testimony from two other diplomats.
In separate testimony, a Pentagon official appeared to undermine a key Republican defense in the impeachment battle, that Kiev did not even know until late August or even September about the July 18 aid freeze, rendering moot Democrats’ allegations that Trump had extorted Ukraine.
Laura Cooper, the Pentagon official in charge of Ukraine affairs, said Kiev voiced concern over a holdup in aid on July 25.
That was the same day that Trump told Zelensky in a phone call that he wanted a favor, asking for investigations into Biden specifically and the 2016 conspiracy theory.
“The Ukrainian embassy staff asked, ‘What is going on with Ukrainian security assistance?” she told the committee.
At the White House, Trump denied making the demand of Zelensky, citing Sondland’s own recall of their September 9 phone call on the Ukraine issue.
Reading from large-print notes, he said that he told Sonderland: “I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing.”
“If this were a prizefight, they’d stop it!” he said of the inquiry.
Speaking at the Democrats’ debate, Biden dodged a question on the role of his son but said the testimony had shown that “Donald Trump doesn’t want me to be the nominee.”
And Bernie Sanders, another of the frontrunners for the nomination, said Trump had been shown to be “not only a pathological liar” but also “the most corrupt president in the modern history of America.”