Taliban say new Afghan peace talks to be held in China

Talks planned for end of October will be first between Taliban and Afghan officials since July

FILE - In this May 28, 2019 file photo, Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban's political office in Doha, speaks to the media in Moscow, Russia. Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders agreed they wanted a deal with the United States, but some among them were in more of a hurry than others. Even before U.S. President Donald Trump cancelled a mysterious Camp David summit on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, the Taliban negotiators were at odds with the council of leaders, or shura, that rules the Islamic movement. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
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A new round of Afghan peace talks will be held in China next week, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said on Tuesday, raising hopes as violence surges in Afghanistan’s 18-year war.

The talks planned for October 28 and 29 will be the first between Taliban and prominent Afghans from Kabul since a July round of talks held in Doha, where the Taliban have a political office.

On Monday, the US State Department said its peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, started a new round of talks with European, Nato and UN allies about ending the war.

Mr Khalilzad will later meet Russian and Chinese representatives “to discuss shared interests in seeing the war in Afghanistan come to an end", the State Department said.

For nearly a year, Mr Khalilzad led direct US talks with the Taliban.

But in September, as a deal seemed imminent, President Donald Trump declared the deal dead after attacks in the Afghan capital killed more than a dozen people, including a US soldier.

Mr Trump continued to call for the withdrawal of the estimated 14,000 American soldiers still in Afghanistan, saying they had taken over the job of policing the country, which the government’s security forces should be doing.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper, who made his first visit to Afghanistan last weekend, said he believed the US could reduce its force in Afghanistan to 8,600 without hurting the counter-terrorism fight against Al Qaeda and ISIS.

But Mr Esper said any withdrawal would happen as part of a peace agreement with the Taliban.

In recent weeks signs have emerged of a renewed effort to have peace talks with the Taliban restarted.

This month, Mr Khalilzad met Taliban chief negotiator and co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar in the Pakistani capital Islamabad for their first meeting since Mr Trump declared talks dead.

The State Department said the trip to Pakistan was not about restarting talks with the Taliban, but the meeting seemed to be a beginning.

Mr Shaheen said the group was ready to resume talks from where they left off in September.

He said September 13 had been chosen for the signing of a peace deal.

Immediately after signing, the Taliban agreed to announce a ceasefire but only against US and Nato troops, Mr Shaheen said.

He said the deal also called for a ceasefire with Afghanistan’s security forces to top the agenda at the first intra-Afghan negotiations, which were due for September 23.

The peace deal negotiated between the Taliban and Mr Khalilzad was also to include the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for prisoners being held by the group, one of its officials said.

Another set of talks were held for the release of two professors at the American University in Kabul — American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks — who were kidnapped in 2016.

The two were to be exchanged for 11 Taliban prisoners, including Anas Haqqani, the brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, deputy head of the Taliban and leader of the feared Haqqani network.

An uncle of the Haqqanis was also to be released.

Mr Khalilzad has been criticised by the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani for holding his talks with the Taliban in secrecy.

The Taliban have refused to talk directly with Mr Ghani’s government, calling them US puppets after the 2014 presidential elections were so deeply disputed that the US sent then secretary of state John Kerry to Kabul.

Mr Kerry pieced together a "unity government" making Mr Ghani and his chief rival Dr Abdullah Abdullah equal partners in ruling.

Presidential polls held on September 28 appeared to be headed for similar controversy as preliminary results have yet to be announced amid scores of fraud and corruption claims.

Mr Ghani’s spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, would not comment on Mr Shaheen’s announcement of a meeting in China.

Mr Sediqqi said that a “sustainable peace” would be possible only if the Afghan government took the lead.