Afghan Taliban reject government's negotiating team

Hope of progress of peace dealt another blow just a day after US special envoy hailed 'inclusive' 21-member team

FILE PHOTO: Members of Afghanistan's Taliban delegation (R) gather ahead of an agreement signing between them and U.S. officials in Doha, Qatar, February 29, 2020. REUTERS/Ibraheem al Omari/File Photo
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Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgents on Saturday rejected the peace negotiating team appointed by the government, in a setback to the next steps of a US-brokered peace process.

Spokesman Zabuhullah Mujahid said the group would not negotiate with the team as it was not selected in a way that included "all Afghan factions".

The Taliban’s first comment on the 21-member team announced by the government late on Thursday came after the US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, congratulated political and civil society leaders for reaching agreement on its composition.

“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,”  he said on Twitter on Friday

"This consensus is a meaningful step that moves the parties significantly closer to intra-Afghan negotiations.”

Implementation of the United States-brokered peace deal has been marred with delays, in part due to a bitter feud between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his political rival Abdullah Abdullah.

The move is a crucial step in bringing the warring parties to the table and getting the peace process back on track.

Up until now, the Taliban has refused to meet with the administration of President Ghani, calling him an American stooge.

In return for starting talks and other commitments, the US and foreign partner forces will withdraw from Afghanistan over the next 14 months.

The negotiating team was supposed to be unveiled weeks ago, with the "intra-Afghan" talks with the Taliban meant to get underway on March 10 in Oslo.

But Kabul has been gripped by a fresh political crisis, with Mr Ghani's legitimacy being challenged by his rival Abdullah Abdullah, who has also proclaimed himself president.

The negotiating team will be led by former Afghan intelligence chief Masoom Stanekzai, who as a Pashtun shares a tribal identity with the Taliban.

While there was no immediate indication of whether Abdullah supports the team's composition, it includes Batur Dostum, whose father Abdul Rashid Dostum - a notorious former warlord - is a staunch Abdullah ally.

In a statement, Afghanistan's peace ministry said Mr Ghani "wishes the delegation success and calls on them to consider, at all stages of negotiations, the best interest of the country, the shared values of the Afghan people, and the principle stand of the country for a united Afghanistan".

Among the five women delegates is Habiba Sarabi, deputy leader of the government's High Peace Council. Ms Sarabi is a Hazara, the predominantly Shiite ethnic group that the Taliban have repeatedly targeted.

Another female delegate is Fawzia Koofi, an ethnic Tajik and a women's rights activist who has been a vocal Taliban critic.

During their reign across much of Afghanistan from 1996-2001, the Taliban forced women to stay at home, banned female education and frequently executed women on flimsy allegations of adultery.

It is not clear when or where the "intra-Afghan" talks will start. Given the coronavirus pandemic, officials say there is a chance they could begin via videoconference.

On Wednesday, the government said it would meet directly with Taliban members to discuss a massive prisoner swap that would see the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 from the government side.

That exchange had also been agreed in the US-Taliban deal, even though Ghani is not a signatory.

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 around 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.

Afghanistan so far has more than 90 confirmed cases and there are fears the virus is spreading from thousands crossing the border each day from hard-hit neighbour Iran.

Health ministry spokesman Wahidullah Mayar welcomed the setting up of health teams and said the health ministry was ready to help.

"We say that we are ready to assist the Taliban if they contact us," he said.

The US has left Mr Ghani little choice but to get onboard with the agreement, and this week Washington cut $1 billion in US aid amid continued bickering between Mr Ghani and Mr Abdullah, and has threatened deeper cuts if Kabul does not resolve its political infighting.