KABUL: Long-awaited negotiations with the Taliban to settle the protracted conflict in Afghanistan may begin next week, officials told Arab News on Friday.
It came a day after the Taliban chief negotiator said that no peace talks were planned with Kabul for early September.
At a time when the two sides are under pressure from the US to hold talks, Abdullah Abdullah, who chairs Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, announced on Thursday that Afghan officials were ready to hold talks with the Taliban from early September.
However, in response to the announcement, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, who leads the Taliban negotiation team, said in a statement to Reuters that the group had no such plans.
“No firm date has been specified, but there is high hope that based on the contacts, discussions and measures that are underway. It is possible that the talks will happen next week,” Abdullah’s spokesman Feraidoon Khawzoon told Arab News.
He added that Doha in Qatar will be the venue for the first round of the negotiations, which have been delayed several times in recent months due to disputes between the Taliban and the Afghan government and disagreements among leaders in Kabul. The talks are part of the historical deal the US signed with the Taliban in Doha in late February.
Thursday’s announcement by Abdullah that the talks would begin next week comes after his phone conversation with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan during a recent visit of a Taliban delegation to Islamabad. The Taliban could not be reached for comment on Friday.
The intra-Afghan talks should have begun in early March following a prisoner exchange between the Taliban and Kabul as per the February agreement, which also paves the way for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan of all foreign US-led troops by next spring.
After being sidelined from the US-Taliban talks, President Ashraf Ghani’s government initially refused to release Taliban prisoners, but under pressure from Washington began freeing them. It refused, however, to release some 400 inmates who it he said were behind heinous crimes and summoned in early August a grand assembly, the Loya Jirga, to decide their fate.
The assembly approved the release, but Ghani, after having promised to free all 400, released only 80 of the inmates, as he said that France and Australia were against the release of some who had killed their civil and military nationals in Afghanistan.
After nearly 20 years of war in Afghanistan — America’s longest warfare engagement in history — US President Donald Trump has been pushing for the start of intra-Afghan talks, which analysts say he needs to fulfill his promise of pulling out US troops ahead of America’s presidential election in November.
“The Taliban and some other Afghan leaders see the talks now as a good opportunity to happen and succeed because they want Ghani out of the scene,” analyst Taj Mohammad told Arab News.
One of the main points of the Taliban and possibly some non-state delegates to the intra-Afghan talks in Doha will be the formation of an interim Afghan government, an option which Ghani, who started his second term as president in March, is expected to oppose.
“All sides have their own agendas for the talks. Trump is keen to see it happen for his electoral goal. Ghani wants to delay the talks in case Joe Biden wins the US race and would not push for the intra-Afghan dialogue or even total troop pullout,” Mohammad said.