ISLAMABAD: Taliban chief Maulvi Hibatullah Akhunzada has appointed a hard-line cleric, Sheikh Abdul Hakim, as the group’s key negotiator for crucial Afghan peace talks, a Taliban spokesman confirmed on Saturday.
Hakim, the group’s chief justice and a confidant of the Taliban chief, will lead a 21-member team in negotiations with the Afghan government, with talks expected to begin in Doha in the coming days.
“Sheikh Mawlawi Abdul Hakim (was) appointed head of negotiation team and Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai as (his) deputy,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a Twitter post.
He added that Muhammad Naeem Wardak will replace Suhail Shaheen — one of the few familiar faces among the Taliban leaders — as spokesman.
With the appointment of Hakim, the Taliban leader has strengthened his control over the group’s political affairs. The negotiation team includes 13 members of Rehbari Shoura, the leadership council, who answer to the chief.
Almost all members of the Taliban negotiation team have already arrived in Doha, including six led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar — until now the chief negotiator — who left Islamabad early on Saturday, Taliban sources said.
The peace negotiations were due to begin on March 10, but delays over an exchange of prisoners — 5,000 held by the Afghan government and 1,000 by the Taliban — hindered efforts to get the talks underway.
While the government has now freed almost all Taliban prisoners, its negotiating team was unable to leave Kabul on Saturday because of technical issues, according to Afghan media reports. The team is expected to leave for Qatar on Sunday.
The US State Department said that Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad left for Doha on Friday and will remain in the region to promote the immediate start of the talks.
“The Afghan people are ready for a sustainable reduction in violence and a political settlement that will end the war. Afghan leaders must seize this historic opportunity for peace,” the State Department said in a statement on Saturday.
All sides have taken important steps to remove obstacles for the start of negotiations and it is “the time to start,” it added.