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Row over Kabul’s participation delays US-Taliban talks

Updated January 09, 2019

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Afghan Taliban refuse to talk to Kabul because the govt has no say in key policy matters, such as US military presence. — File photo
Afghan Taliban refuse to talk to Kabul because the govt has no say in key policy matters, such as US military presence. — File photo

WASHINGTON: American and Taliban representatives have agreed to delay a two-day meeting scheduled to begin in Doha on Wednesday, diplomatic sources told Dawn.

This would have been the fourth round of US-Taliban talks on a peace initiative to end the 17-year-old Afghan war, which is also America’s longest military engagement.

The sources said the talks were postponed after the Taliban refused to allow Afghan officials to participate in the discussions.

The development follows renewed US efforts to jumpstart the Afghan peace process. US President Donald Trump telephoned Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday and discussed the Afghan situation with him, the White House said.

“The leaders agreed to strengthen the US-India strategic partnership in 2019 and exchanged perspectives on how to… increase cooperation in Afghanistan,” a statement said.

President Trump, who plans to withdraw half of the 14,000 US troops still stationed in Afghanistan, said last week that he wanted India, Pakistan and Russia to play a greater role in ending the Afghan conflict.

Also, an aide to Iran’s supreme leader said on Monday that US officials approached him during a December visit to Afghanistan to request talks with Tehran.

Although the US State Department denied this report by Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency, a spokeswoman told journalists the Trump administration was open to a dialogue with Iran on “urgent national security issues”.

Diplomatic observers in Washington, however, focused on the postponement of the US-Taliban talks. They noted that initially both teams had agreed to meet in Riyadh, but the Taliban refused to go there, complaining that Saudis were forcing them to include the Afghan government in the talks.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Reuters news agency reported the changing of venue, adding that the two-day talks would now start in Doha on Wednesday. But later, Reuters and other international media outlets reported that the Taliban had opted out of Doha as well, complaining that Qatar too was pressurising them to allow Afghan officials to attend the talks.

The United States, which is pushing for Kabul’s inclusion, had hoped that Qatar could succeed where the Saudis did not because it hosted the first two rounds of US-Taliban talks and also allowed the Taliban to maintain an outpost in Doha. The Taliban, however, insist that they will not talk to Kabul because the Afghan government has no say in key policy matters, such as the US military presence.

While media reports claimed that the talks had been postponed indefinitely, diplomatic sources in Washington said the meeting would soon be rescheduled as both sides wanted the talks to continue.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo began a weeklong tour of the Middle East on Tuesday that would take him to three capitals playing key role in promoting Afghan peace talks — Abu Dhabi, Doha and Riyadh.

A senior State Department official told journalists in Washington that during this visit, Mr Pompeo would “underscore the importance of maintaining key partnerships” for tackling common challenges, like Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan.

Published in Dawn, January 9th, 2019

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