Hopes rise for Afghan peace talks after Khalilzad’s visit

Hopes rise for Afghan peace talks after Khalilzad’s visit

KABUL: Talks to end the 18-year-old conflict in Afghanistan may begin this month, sources said on Monday, a day after the US special envoy visited Islamabad and met Taliban leaders in Qatar.

The United States signed a troop withdrawal deal with the Taliban in February, but its attempts to usher the group towards peace talks with the Afghan government have been mired in setbacks and violence surged in March and April.

The Taliban’s spokesman Suhail Shaheen said on Twitter that US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad had discussed “the commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations” at the group’s political capital, Doha, on Sunday. Khalilzad had earlier met Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa in Islamabad, according to the US Embassy.

“The two took note of recent progress created by the Eid ceasefire and accelerated prisoner releases as well as reduced violence ahead of intra-Afghan negotiations,” the Embassy said on Monday. “(They) discussed steps required for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations.” Disagre­ement over the Taliban’s demand for the release of 5,000 prisoners has also blocked progress towards resolving the conflict.

A sticking point ahead of the talks was the exchange of prisoners between the warring sides. After stalling for weeks, the prisoner swaps unfolded and by Monday, the government had released 2,710 Taliban prisoners, according to Javid Faisal, spokesman for the national security adviser’s office in Kabul.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen says the insurgents have so far freed 531 Afghan military and civilian government personnel they held captive. Shaheen, however, tweeted that the government freed so far only 2,284 Taliban prisoners. The discrepancy could not be immediately explained, but the Taliban have been counting only those prisoners they had listed as part of the US-Taliban deal.

This deal calls for the Kabul government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners and the Taliban to free 1,000 government and military personnel ahead of the negotiations an exchange billed as a goodwill gesture.

The accord, signed Feb 29, was seen as Afghanistan’s best chance for peace and an opportunity for U.S. and NATO troops to leave the war-torn country after nearly two decades of fighting.

One Afghan presidential palace source and one diplomatic source said those issues were gradually being resolved and momentum had grown in recent weeks for formal talks, which were expected to begin this month, likely in Doha.

But the sources also said due to complications from the coronavirus some negotiations might initially be held virtually.

Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2020

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