Long-awaited intra-Afghan negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban are expected to start in Doha, Qatar within a week once the final 400 Taliban prisoners have been released.
“We are ready to sit for talks within a week from when we see our prisoners released. We are ready,” Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, told Reuters on Monday.
A government source told Reuters that President Ashraf Ghani would likely sign the decree to release the prisoners later on Monday.
“Everyone is waiting for Ghani to sign on the decree. The original plan is to travel to Doha on Wednesday and the talks will begin on Sunday,” the source said.
Meanwhile, in an interview with BBC Pashto on Sunday, Shaheen said the Taliban negotiating team will be led by Abbas Stanikzai, the former chief negotiator for the Taliban during talks with the United States.
Asked about a ceasefire, called for by the Loya Jirga on Sunday, Shaheen said: “The ceasefire is part of the intra-Afghan negotiations agenda that will be discussed there. It has been mentioned in the Doha agreement.”
Shaheen said the group wanted peace but criticized the delay in the prisoner release process by the Afghan government.
He also stated that the group will continue to adhere to its commitments made during the signing of the US-Taliban agreement in Doha earlier this year.
US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who cemented the agreement with the Taliban in February for the prisoner release campaign along with the withdrawal of US troops, on Monday also welcomed the Loya Jirga’s decision to release the remaining 400 prisoners.
He also said that intra-Afghan talks would commence soon.
In a series of posts on Twitter, Khalilzad said: “In the next few days, we expect the completion of prisoner releases, then travel of the Islamic Republic team to Doha, & from there the immediate start of intra-Afghan negotiations.”
“The parties will embark on a process to reach an agreement on a political roadmap & a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire to end the Afghan war,” he tweeted.
The release of the 400 hardcore prisoners had been a stumbling block in the way of peace talks in the past month. President Ashraf Ghani has so far released over 4,600 Taliban prisoners in accordance with the Doha agreement but was wary of releasing the remaining group.
However, this weekend’s Loya Jirga unanimously voted in favor of releasing the prisoners so that peace talks could start between the two parties.
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Pakistan’s peace envoy arrives in Kabul for talks
Pakistan’s ambassador to Kabul Mansoor Ahmad Khan said Sunday that a high-ranking delegation led by Pakistan’s Special Representative on Afghan Reconciliation arrived in Kabul for talks with Afghan officials.
“Muhammad Sadiq, Pakistan’s Special Representative on Afghan Reconciliation, arrived in Kabul this morning for discussions with Afghan officials on peace,” Khan tweeted.
During his visit Sadiq will also discuss security and related matters, the ambassador confirmed.
Sadiq’s visit comes just two weeks after a scheduled visit by another Pakistani delegation was canceled due to security threats.
Earlier this month, Pakistan’s Speaker of the House of Representatives, Asad Qaisar, and his accompanying delegation were forced to turn back to Islamabad after entering Afghan airspace following the reported discovery of explosive materials at the airport.
At the time, Qaisar’s flight was turned back after NATO warned they had found explosives on the runway at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul city.
Qaisar had been scheduled to visit Kabul for three days.
According to officials at the time, the explosives had been planted on one of the runways years ago.
CENTCOM chief in midst of ‘detailed planning’ for counterterrorism ops
Carrying out airstrikes against terrorist hideouts in Afghanistan without a US troop presence in the country will be difficult but “not impossible”, the commander of US Central Command General Frank McKenzie said on Tuesday.
Speaking to the House Armed Services Committee, McKenzie said he is in the midst of “detailed planning” for options for so-called “over the horizon” forces, or forces positioned elsewhere in the region that could continue counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan.
He said he plans to give Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin those options by the end of the month.
“If you leave Afghanistan and you want to go back in to conduct these kinds of operations, there are three things you need to do: you need to find the target, you need to fix the target, and you need to be able to finish the target,” McKenzie said.
“The first two require heavy intelligence support. If you’re out of the country, and you don’t have the ecosystem that we have there now, it will be harder to do that. It is not impossible to do that.”
McKenzie’s testimony comes almost a week after President Joe Biden announced he was withdrawing all US troops from Afghanistan and that they would all be home by September 11 – the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
According to The Hill, Biden’s decision came despite repeated statements from US military officials that the Taliban was not yet upholding its end of a deal made during the Trump administration to reduce violence and break from al-Qaeda, as well as warnings about the potential for chaos in Afghanistan that could allow an al-Qaeda resurgence should US troops withdraw.
Meanwhile, McKenzie’s comments about the difficulty of intelligence gathering without a troop presence echo comments last week from CIA Director William Burns, who told senators the ability to collect intelligence on threats in Afghanistan will “diminish” with a US military withdrawal, the Hill reported.
On Tuesday, McKenzie also said he continues to have “grave doubts” about the Taliban’s reliability in upholding its commitments under the deal signed last year.
McKenzie declined to tell lawmakers how he advised Biden as the president deliberated the withdrawal, but said he had “multiple opportunities” to provide Biden with his perspective.
The Hill reported that speaking broadly about options to continue strikes once US troops leave, McKenzie said surveillance drones could be positioned in a place where they can reach Afghanistan “in a matter of minutes” or ”perhaps much further away.”
“We will look at all the countries in the region, our diplomats will reach out, and we’ll talk about places where we could base those resources,” he said.
“Some of them may be very far away, and then there would be a significant bill for those types of resources because you’d have to cycle a lot of them in and out. That is all doable, however.”
Right now, McKenzie added, the United States does not have any basing agreements with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan or other countries surrounding Afghanistan.
McKenzie also said there are a “variety of ways” to strike targets, including long-range precision fire missiles, manned raids or manned aircraft.
“There are problems with all three of those options, but there’s also opportunities with all three of those options,” he said.
“I don’t want to make light of it. I don’t want to put on rose-colored glasses and say it’s going to be easy to do. I can tell you that the U.S. military can do just about anything. And we’re examining this problem with all of our resources right now to find a way to do it in the most intelligent, risk-free manner that we can.”
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley are also scheduled to brief the full House and Senate behind closed doors later Tuesday on Biden’s plan for Afghanistan.
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