Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged US President Donald Trump to ensure an Afghan soldier who carried out an insider attack and killed three Australian soldiers was not part of the group of 400 hard core Taliban prisoners expected to be released within days.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, officials from the Department of Defence contacted the families of the three Australian soldiers on Friday, warning the soldier, Hekmatullah, would likely be one of the prisoners released as part of peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Hekmatullah has spent seven years in prison after killing Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic, Sapper James Martin and Private Robert Poate in August 2012 while they were playing cards, the Herald reported.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds raised the matter with their US counterparts in Washington during talks late last month, and Morrison has written to Trump asking that Hekmatullah not be released, the Herald stated.
“This has been a matter of very regular and persistent petitioning on our behalf,” Morrison said in Canberra on Monday.
“It is a matter of keen interest to Australia, and we’ve reminded them of that. Hekmatullah was responsible for murdering three Australians, and our position is that he should never be released. We do not believe that his release adds to peace in this region.”
“And that is the position that we will continue to maintain and we’ll maintain it strongly. I can’t promise you the outcome we all want here, but it’s certainly the outcome that we will continue to press for as hard as we can,” he said.
This comes after Sunday’s decision by the Loya Jirga, or grand council, in Kabul, that the remaining 400 controversial prisoners be released in accordance with the Doha agreement between the US and the Taliban in February this year.
Following Sunday’s resolution, President Ashraf Ghani issued a decree ordering the release of the prisoners so that intra-Afghan talks can start as soon as possible.
Khalilzad wraps up 4-day trip to Turkey ahead of Summit
Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad has wrapped up a four-day visit to Turkey to discuss the upcoming Istanbul Summit on the Afghanistan peace process.
In a statement issued by the US Embassy in Turkey, the planned Istanbul Summit “is meant to help Afghan negotiators accelerate their efforts to end the war in Afghanistan and agree to a political settlement and a permanent ceasefire.”
The conference will complement peace talks currently ongoing in Doha, the statement read.
Khalilzad, who was in Turkey from March 26 to 29, met with a number of Turkish officials during this time, including Presidential Advisor Ibrahim Kalin, and Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal.
According to the embassy’s statement, American and Turkish officials consulted on the timing, format, and overall objectives and agenda of the conference to ensure that it will be well prepared and organized.
“They agreed that an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned conference, supported by high-level attendance from the international community, provides the best means to accelerate the peace process.
“They also agreed to urge the Afghan parties to prepare for constructive participation in this conference.”
This comes after Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), said last week he hopes “tangible progress will be made towards a peace settlement at the Istanbul meeting”.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency in an exclusive interview, Abdullah said the presence of decision-makers expected to attend the meeting needs to be utilized to push to accelerate the settlement of issues in Afghanistan.
“There have been a lot of discussions between both sides in the past few months in Doha. The Doha process will continue and then we have the Istanbul meeting. The Istanbul meeting will be held at a high level.
“There will be top leaders of Afghanistan and Taliban — that’s how it is anticipated,” Abdullah said.
He also urged that the Istanbul opportunity should not be used to give speeches; instead, it should focus on working for tangible progress.
“The final, final, final agreement, of course, it takes time, but we should at least agree on few principles. And an agreement on a ceasefire will be very, very important,” Abdullah added.
Anadolu reported that Abdullah said it’s time to move beyond the US-Taliban deal, which stipulates the May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of foreign troops, and stated it was time to forge an agreement directly between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
He also stated the Taliban’s readiness to move ahead would be tested in the coming days.
“Eventually, it has to be a comprehensive agreement between us, there is something between the US and the Taliban, but eventually, we need to agree. The readiness of the Taliban remains to be seen. It will be tested before the meeting in Turkey,” Abdullah told Anadolu.
No date for the Istanbul Summit has yet been confirmed but it is widely expected that it will take place early next month.
Pakistan’s FM to attend Heart of Asia summit
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi will attend the 9th Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process ministerial meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan this week.
According to Pakistan’s foreign office, Qureshi will deliver a statement “highlighting Pakistan’s positive contributions to the Afghan peace process and its support for Afghanistan’s development and connectivity within the regional framework.”
Qureshi is also expected to hold consultations with regional and international partners, including Tajik leaders.
The Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process comprises 15 participating countries, 17 supporting countries and 12 supporting regional and international organizations.
Members of the process are Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Turkey.
US and NATO partners will exit Afghanistan ‘together’: Blinken
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday that American forces will only withdraw from Afghanistan in coordination with their NATO allies.
“We’ve been very clear, and NATO has been very clear, that the approach that we’re taking to this is we went in together, we’ve adapted to circumstances together and we will come out together when the time is right,” Blinken said in an interview with CNN.
“And what we’re focused on now is looking at the May 1 deadline.”
“One of the things that was important was not only to share our thinking as we’re going through this review, including the May 1 deadline but to listen, to hear from our partners who are so invested: their ideas, their thoughts, their analysis.”
With only weeks away from the May 1 troop withdrawal deadline, signed between the US and Taliban in Doha last year, Washington is still reviewing the deal although President Joe Biden said on Wednesday at a press conference that the date would be “hard to meet” for “tactical reasons”.
However, he also said that he does not expect US troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2022.
The US currently has a reported 2,500 troops in the country but the New York Times said in a recent article that the figure was closer to 3,500. NATO meanwhile has about 7,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan, bringing the total number of foreign troops to around 10,000.
Blinken told CNN: “There are actually more European forces in Afghanistan right now than there are American, so they’re deeply invested in this with us, and they’ve been shoulder to shoulder with us from the very start.”
“It was also very important to try to accelerate the diplomacy because ultimately everyone recognizes that there is no military solution to Afghanistan,” he said.
“There has to be some kind of political settlement, and it has to be a settlement reached by the Afghans themselves.”
This comes after the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad departed for Turkey on Thursday to resume negotiations on the peace process.
“Ambassador Khalilzad will build on recent efforts by regional and international partners to encourage two Afghan parties to accelerate their negotiations to end the conflict,” the State Department said.
“He will engage the two sides on their preparatory efforts for talks on a political settlement that produces a permanent ceasefire and a durable and just peace.
“He will also meet with stakeholders to discuss how the region and international community can facilitate talks between the sides.”
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