Afghanistan’s government has announced a 21-member team to negotiate with the Taliban in a tentative sign of progress for the United States-brokered peace deal.
The team, announced late on Thursday by the country’s State Ministry of Peace, is headed by Masoom Stanekzai, a former chief of the National Directorate of Security and supporter of President Ashraf Ghani, and includes politicians, former officials and representatives of civil society. Five members are women.
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It was not immediately clear whether Ghani’s political rival Abdullah Abdullah would endorse the team selected, which diplomats have said would be vital given his camp’s strong influence in much of the country’s north and west.
The development was endorsed by US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who congratulated Afghan political and civil society leaders.
“They’ve forged an inclusive negotiating team for talks with the Taliban … This consensus is a meaningful step that moves the parties significantly closer to intra-Afghan negotiations,” he said, referring to the talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban as part of a process aimed at ending the US’s longest war and bringing peace to Afghanistan.
I want to congratulate Afghan government, political & civil society leaders for coming together. They've forged an inclusive negotiating team for talks with the Taliban. The Islamic Republic delegation reflects the true tapestry of the nation and the instrumental role of women.
— U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad (@US4AfghanPeace) March 27, 2020
Abdullah’s spokesman said he could neither confirm nor deny whether Abdullah supported the team.
Two sources – one a diplomat in Kabul briefed on the matter and another a member of Abdullah’s team – speaking on condition of anonymity, said negotiations had been taking place and he was likely to support the delegation.
The US signed a troop withdrawal deal with the Taliban in February in Qatar’s capital, Doha, but progress on moving to negotiations between the armed group and the Afghan government has been delayed, in part by the political feud between Ghani and Abdullah, who both claimed to be Afghanistan’s rightful leader following September’s disputed election.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo failed to mediate between the two men to create an “inclusive” government during a day-long visit to Kabul on Monday, and announced a $1bn cut in US aid to Afghanistan, which he said could be reversed.
Peace talks during pandemic
The global coronavirus pandemic has been adding challenges to the peace process and Khalilzad has said it created a need for urgency.
The Taliban had demanded the unconditional release of 5,000 prisoners before starting talks with the government.
Ghani countered with an offer to free 1,500 prisoners, and has since said he would release 100 of them at the end of March due to humanitarian concerns stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.
The arrangement was struck in talks between Taliban officials in Doha and government officials in Kabul held over Skype because of travel restrictions.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said 15 Taliban officials would soon travel to Kabul to verify a list of prisoners.
Officials said on Friday that movement would be heavily restricted in the capital from Saturday to curb the risk of coronavirus, and measures would include the closure of most stores and offices, other than essential services such as healthcare and food shops.
The Taliban, which controls or contests about half the country, said it had set up about 100 health teams to spread awareness on measures such as hand washing, but were struggling in some rural areas to convince people of the seriousness of the virus, Mujahid said.
Health ministry spokesman Wahidullah Mayar welcomed the setting up of health teams and said the ministry was ready to help.
“We say that we are ready to assist the Taliban if they contact us,” he said.