Taliban chief negotiator says 20-member council finalized for intra-Afghan talks

Taliban chief negotiator says 20-member council finalized for intra-Afghan talks
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, front, receiving Afghan Taliban delegation at the Foreign Ministry’s office in Islamabad on Tuesday. (Supplied)
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Updated 26 August 2020

Taliban chief negotiator says 20-member council finalized for intra-Afghan talks

Taliban chief negotiator says 20-member council finalized for intra-Afghan talks
  • Prisoner release sticking point in high-level meeting between Kabul and Taliban

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.


UK hopes to be able to consider lockdown easing in March

UK hopes to be able to consider lockdown easing in March
Updated 17 January 2021

UK hopes to be able to consider lockdown easing in March

UK hopes to be able to consider lockdown easing in March
  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set a target of vaccinating the elderly, including care home residents, the clinically vulnerable and frontline workers

LONDON: Britain’s government hopes it can meet its target for rolling out COVID-19 vaccines and be able to consider easing lockdown restrictions by March, foreign minister Dominic Raab said on Sunday.
The country, which has Europe’s highest COVID-19 death toll, has been under a national lockdown since Jan. 5, when schools were closed for most pupils, non-essential businesses were shut to the public, and people were ordered to work from home where possible.
“What we want to do is get out of this national lockdown as soon as possible,” Raab told Sky News television.
“By early spring, hopefully by March, we’ll be in a position to make those decisions. I think it’s right to say we won’t do it all in one big bang. As we phase out the national lockdown, I think we’ll end up phasing through a tiered approach.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set a target of vaccinating the elderly, including care home residents, the clinically vulnerable and frontline workers — or roughly more than 13 million people — by mid-February.
If all goes smoothly, he has said that England can consider easing lockdown restrictions from that time.
The Sunday Times newspaper said British ministers had reached a deal to approve a three-point plan that could lead to some lockdown restrictions being lifted as soon as early March.
Areas will have restrictions eased once their death rate has fallen, the number of hospital admissions drops and some people aged between 50 and 70 are vaccinated, the newspaper said.
The Sunday Times quoted cabinet ministers as saying they were prepared to resist pressure from health advisers to delay the changes until most people are vaccinated, a process that would take until the summer at least.
“For the first time there are no significant divisions between hawks and doves in the cabinet,” a cabinet source told the newspaper. “Everyone accepted that we need to lock down hard and everyone accepts that we need to open up before everyone is vaccinated.”
A spokesman in Johnson’s office declined to comment on the report.