ISLAMABAD: The Taliban’s top commander has finalized a 20-member negotiating team for upcoming intra-Afghan talks, the group’s chief negotiator Sher Abbas Stanekzai told Arab News on Tuesday.
Stanekzai said that the team, appointed by Sheikh Hibatullah Akhunzada, would have sweeping powers, including the authority to devise a strategy and sign agreements with President Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kabul.
“All decision-making powers are with the negotiation team, which has a 65 percent representation from the Rehbari Shura (leadership council),” he said. “They will take the process forward ... and are now involved in internal consultations to chalk out a strategy.” The group of 20 includes several of Akhunzada’s close aides such as Sheikh Abdul Hakeem, Maulvi Abdul Kabeer, Maulvi Noor Mohammad Saqib, Mullah Shireen Noorzai, Sheikh Qasim Turkmen, and Abdul Manan Omari, who is the brother of the Taliban’s founder, Mullah Omar.
The crucial intra-Afghan talks – the first high-level meeting between Kabul and the Taliban after years of fighting – are part of a historic peace deal signed between the Taliban and Washington in Doha earlier this year.
No date has been announced for the meeting yet, but it was set to begin following the release of all 5,000 Taliban prisoners by the Afghan government.
While Ghani announced on Aug. 9 that he would free the remaining 400 Taliban inmates “soon,” Stanekzai said the program had hit a snag after the Afghan government “stopped the release of about 320 prisoners,” despite the Taliban keeping their end of the deal by releasing all 1,000 government troops.
The delay in fulfilling the final condition for the start of the talks is due to France and Australia opposing the move, after it emerged that several of the unreleased Taliban inmates were involved in attacks on their citizens in Afghanistan. “France asks the Afghan government not to proceed with the release of several terrorists convicted of killing French citizens in Afghanistan, in particular soldiers and humanitarian workers,” the French Embassy in Kabul tweeted on Aug. 16.
Stanekzai questioned the timing of the objections, accusing France and Australia of trying to sabotage the peace process.
“Kabul had agreed to release prisoners but later deviated from its commitment. We will not start intra-Afghan dialogue even if our one prisoner stays in jail. Every prisoner is a hero as they fought invaders whether they were from Australia or France.”
In a tit-for-tat move, the Afghan government is now demanding that the Taliban release nearly 20 commandos held by the group.
The intra-Afghan talks, which have now reached a stalemate, were expected to set the road map for post-war Afghanistan, with several countries including Pakistan making efforts to take the peace process forward.
A high-level Taliban delegation arrived in Islamabad on Monday to explore options, just days after Pakistan imposed UN sanctions on the insurgents.
The six-member Taliban delegation, led by the head of its political office in Qatar, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, will discuss recent developments in Afghanistan’s peace process with Pakistani leaders.
Talks with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi are expected on Tuesday.