KABUL: The Taliban declined on Saturday to begin talks with the Afghan government’s new negotiating team in a setback to the US-brokered peace process for one of the world’s longest-running conflicts.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the militants could not talk to the 21-member team named on Thursday as it was not constituted taking into account all parties.

The team is headed by Masoom Stanekzai, an ex-security chief and supporter of President Ashraf Ghani, and includes politicians, former officials and representatives of civil society. Five members are women.

“In order to reach true and lasting peace, the aforementioned team must be agreed upon by all effective Afghan sides so that it can represent all sides,” said Mujahid.

The United States, which ousted the Taliban from power in 2001, signed a troop withdrawal deal with the group in February.

Abdullah Abdullah yet to confirm his support to team

But progress on moving to talks between the militants and the Afghan government has been delayed by a feud between Afghan politicians, and a disagreement between the Taliban and the government over prisoner release and a possible ceasefire.

Afghan ministry of peace affairs spokeswoman Najia Anwari said the Taliban’s stance was unjustified as the negotiating team was made after wide consultations among Afghan society.

Ghani’s political rival Abdullah Abdullah has not confirmed whether he will support the delegation, potentially important given his camp’s strong influence in the north and west.

Abdullah’s spokesman Fraidoon Khwazoon said that though the announced list was not final and there were “considerations that needed to be addressed”, it should not be rejected outright.

“All sides including the Taliban should try not to lose the available opportunity for peace, by making illogical excuses. The Taliban should not lose the current opportunity.”

The US Embassy did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Saturday.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo failed to mediate between Abdullah and Ghani to create an “inclusive” government during a visit to Kabul on Monday, and announced a $1 billion cut in US aid to Afghanistan, which he said could be reversed.

The US-Taliban deal signed last month was hailed as a way towards a full withdrawal of foreign soldiers from Afghanistan over the next 14 months, thus ending the 18-year-old war in the nation.

While the agreement created a path for the US to gradually pull out of its longest war, many expected talks between the Afghan sides to be much more complicated.

Months of speculation about when the deal would be signed, and what its contents would be, culminated in a plush conference room in the Qatari capital Doha, when Taliban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar signed the accord along with US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.

The pair then shook hands, as people in the room shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest). Pompeo was on hand to witness the ceremony.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper had said then that while the signing of the accord would be a good step, the road ahead would not be easy.

“This is a hopeful moment, but it is only the beginning. The road ahead will not be easy. Achieving lasting peace in Afghanistan will require patience and compromise among all parties,” Esper said.

The US said it is committed to reducing the number of its troops in Afghanistan to 8,600 — from the current 13,000 — within 135 days of signing the deal, and working with its allies to proportionally reduce the number of coalition forces in Afghanistan over that period, if the Taliban adhere to their commitments.

Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2020