The Taliban has said it will attend the U.S-proposed peace conference in Turkey on three conditions – the conference must be short, the agenda must not include decision-making on critical issues and the Taliban delegation should be low level.
A senior Taliban leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told VOA: “Our leadership has proposed that the Istanbul meeting should not be longer than three days.”
Another senior Taliban leader also confirmed the news when approached by VOA.
The Istanbul Conference, designed to give momentum to stalled Doha peace talks, was proposed by the U.S. in April and was expected to be held in early May. However, the conference failed to materialize as the Taliban refused to attend.
VOA reported that the head of the Qatar-based Taliban negotiation team, Abdul Hakeem, and several key members of the Taliban’s Qatar office, met with the group’s leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, and some members of the Taliban leadership council.
According to VOA, Hakeem was accompanied by Mullah Fazil, Mullah Shireen and Mullah Abdul Manan, all negotiation team members and that the consultations with Akhundzada lasted a month before concluding last week.
Earlier reports indicated the deliberations were conducted in Pakistan where the Taliban leadership is believed to live.
VOA reported that the Taliban’s decision on the Istanbul conference is a result of Pakistani and Qatari efforts, among other countries.
“The Taliban leaders were basically not in favor of participation in the Istanbul conference, but they said they will attend with conditions and on request of Pakistan and Qatar,” the Taliban leader told VOA.
The leader, who was privy to internal consultations, did not give details as to who will represent the Taliban, VOA reported.
Nader Nadery, from the Afghan Republic’s negotiating team, told VOA that their side was unaware of this development.
He said nothing had been officially shared with them.
According to VOA, the United States, Turkey, and Afghanistan had proposed that at least one or more senior leaders other than the representatives of the Taliban negotiation team in Doha lead the Taliban team in Istanbul. VOA reported that officials from these countries have said they do not believe the Qatar office envoys, including Mullah Baradar, have the authority to make decisions in the talks.
Initially, the U.S. proposed a 10-day meeting so the Taliban and Afghan Republic’s team could resolve differences and make some critical decisions.
But VOA reported that according to the Taliban leader, the group’s senior leadership did not want Istanbul to be a decision-making platform, and they did not want a specific agenda for the meeting.
VOA also reported that the Taliban leader said the group would not declare a ceasefire at the moment and that this issue would not be declared during intra-Afghan negotiations.
Children evacuated from schools as violence breaks out in Beirut
Children were evacuated from schools and the military was deployed to the streets of Beirut on Thursday afternoon as violence broke out during a protest rally in the Lebanese capital.
By late Thursday afternoon the death toll climbed to four, including a woman who died from a bullet wound in her house, a military source said.
Lebanese Shi’ite parties Hezbollah and Amal said armed groups had fired at protesters from rooftops in Beirut on Thursday, aiming at their heads in an attack they said aimed to drag the country to strife.
In a statement, the parties called on the army to intervene quickly to detain the perpetrators and called on their supporters to remain calm, Reuters reported.
Bursts of gunfire were heard for several hours, along with several explosions which appeared to be rocket propelled-grenades fired into the air, Reuters witnesses said.
Video footage from Lebanese TV station Al Jadeed showed plumes of smoke rising from the streets, as flames burned in the aftermath of an explosion.
The Lebanese army said in a statement the gunfire had targeted protesters as they passed through a traffic circle located in an area dividing Christian and Shi’ite Muslim neighborhoods.
As Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm, a military source told Reuters two people had been killed and seven more wounded.
The shooting began from the Christian neighborhood of Ain el-Remmaneh before spiraling into an exchange of fire, the source added.
Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV said “two martyrs” and a number of wounded had been taken to a hospital in the Shi’ite southern suburbs, indicating that the casualties were Shi’ites.
The Lebanese army deployed heavily in the area and said it would open fire against any armed person on the road.
Political tensions over the probe into the port explosion have been building, with the heavily armed, Iran-backed Hezbollah leading calls for Bitar’s removal, accusing him of bias.
The explosion, in August last year, killed more than 200 people and devastated swathes of Beirut.
Khalilzad says things could have been very different had Ghani stayed
US special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said this weekend that former president Ashraf Ghani’s decision to leave Afghanistan without warning took everyone, including Washington, by surprise.
In an exclusive interview with Ariana News, Khalilzad said that the night before his departure, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had spoken to Ghani on the phone.
He said Ghani had not given any signal as to his intentions.
“Everyone including the US were shocked when this happened,” he said.
However, he implied that had Ghani stepped down as president in the lead up to the IEA’s takeover, things could have been very different.
One of the key reasons however for the breakdown of peace talks between Ghani’s government and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) was that the former president wanted the IEA to be included in the existing government as opposed to a new government being formed, as per the agreement with the United States.
“There were different reasons for the lack of major progress in the negotiations;
“The main one was that there was a long, huge, big gap between the two sides around a political settlement and agreement,” Khalilzad said.
According to him, efforts were made to move the process forward and some progress was made in certain areas.
“But I think the main issue was that the US and the Taliban had reached an agreement over the formation of a new Islamic government.
“The government of Afghanistan wanted the Taliban to be integrated into the former government instead of forming a new government,” he said.
According to him, this would have resembled the government of national unity after the 2014 elections which saw former president Ashraf Ghani and former CEO Abdullah Abdullah sharing power.
Khalilzad said a trilateral agreement was suggested between Ghani, Abdullah and the IEA.
However, Ghani’s opinion was that the country’s Constitution did not allow for such a move.
“For a long time, they (government) assumed if they insisted on this, the Taliban would eventually agree to it.
“The Taliban was in favor of the formation of a new Islamic government. Some Taliban wanted the establishment of the 1990s Emirate while some others were in favor of a new (inclusive) government,” he said
Khalilzad also said that after coming into power, US President Joe Biden “thought that he could reject the deal which was signed during (former president Donald) Trump’s tenure or bring changes to it and this caused the negotiations to be postponed”.
However, once Biden announced his decision to stick to the deal made during Trump’s tenure, and withdraw all troops, “changes came in the balance on the battlefield”.
Touching on the issue of terrorism, Khalilzad said the overall picture has changed and that al-Qaeda’s footprint in the country had been reduced significantly.
He said terrorists were no longer confined to one base but were today spread out around the world.
“They can be found in small and large groups in different countries around the world.
“Therefore, Afghanistan is not what it used to be in terms of the threat of terrorism,” he said adding that currently, only a small number of al-Qaeda members are present in the country.
He said the number did not warrant the presence of US troops in Afghanistan.
Khalilzad also stated that after the deal had been signed in February last year between the US and the Taliban, Washington would not have withdrawn had Americans been targeted.
“The US troops would not have pulled out from Afghanistan if an American had been killed by the Taliban after the agreement,” he said.
A critical question around the collapse of the former government was however the sudden change of heart by the Afghan military, he said adding that in the days leading up to the fall of Ghani’s government, “unexpected things happened, where they (soldiers) did not fight”.
Khalilzad explained that in the hours before the takeover of Kabul by IEA forces, a meeting was underway in Doha between the US, the IEA and the republic.
He said an agreement was reached that the IEA would not attack Kabul and would instead give the then Afghan government two weeks, from August 15, to travel to Doha, meet with all parties concerned, and agree to the formation of a new government.
He said the delegation from the republic would have included former president Hamid Karzai and Abdullah.
“And an agreement would have been made on an inclusive government; but the (former) government would have remained in place in those two weeks.”
Khalilzad stated that the delegation would have been authorized to sign off on an agreement with the IEA.
However, this meeting never took place, nor was any deal signed. Instead, Afghanistan’s then-president, Ghani, fled the country and security forces disintegrated within hours.
Khalilzad confirmed a security and government vacuum immediately emerged which led to the decision that the IEA forces would move into Kabul to secure the capital but stated that Ghani’s sudden, unannounced, departure took everyone, including Washington, by surprise.
“A night earlier the (US) Secretary of State had spoken to the president of Afghanistan; the president of Afghanistan did not signal any intention to leave.
“Everyone including the US were shocked when this happened,” he said adding that Ghani might have thought his life was in danger.
Had Ghani however resigned in order to bring peace to Afghanistan, and allowed the establishment of a new government, “it could have been a historic step”.
“The name of the president could have been written in gold in the history of Afghanistan,” he said, adding that only Ghani can answer the question on why he chose to do it this way.
On whether the US will recognize the IEA government, Khalilzad said this all depends on the IEA – if they stick to the commitments they made.
“The world is waiting to see if the Taliban (IEA) will fulfill the commitments they have made, and if they do, the normal relationship between the world and the Taliban (IEA) will be established,” Khalilzad said.
However, Khalilzad said that Afghanistan is in need of urgent humanitarian aid and has pledged an additional $64 million. He said that not only was the war an issue but unemployment, drought, COVID and a low level of economic activity were also contributing factors to the current situation.
He said discussions are currently underway in various countries and within the United Nations on getting Afghanistan’s assets released.
Khalilzad pointed out that the war in Afghanistan has ended and that fears of a civil war were unfounded. This was “a positive point”, he said.
Drawing a parallel to the civil war that broke out following the withdrawal of Soviet Union troops in 1989, he said “the government at the time could not form an inclusive government, igniting civil war.
“But I hope the bad experience will not be repeated and an inclusive government will be set up,” he said adding that “if they (IEA) go through with their promises, it will be a positive era for the future of Afghanistan.”
CLICK HERE to watch the full interview with English subtitles.
Donor countries pledge $1 billion to support emergency aid for Afghanistan
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has announced that donors have pledged over $1 billion towards aid for Afghanistan – exceeding the hoped for amount of $606 million.
Guterres’ announcement comes after Monday’s High-Level Ministerial Meeting on the Humanitarian Situation in Afghanistan.
“This conference has fully met my expectations in relation to the solidarity with the people in Afghanistan,” Guterres said late Monday.
Afghanistan stands on the brink of a growing humanitarian and economic crisis.
Earlier Monday Guterres, who hosted the meeting, said “the people of Afghanistan need a lifeline” during “their most perilous hour.”
Guterres also maintained that the country’s new rulers had pledged their cooperation “to ensure assistance is delivered to the people of Afghanistan.”
One in two Afghans do not know where their next meal is coming from, the UN chief explained, adding that “many people could run out of food by the end of the month, just as winter approaches”.
Guterres did not specify how much of the $1 billion in pledged funding would be distributed towards the UN emergency budget for the coming months, or what would be potentially provided later.
However, a survey by the World Food Programme (WFP) found 93% of Afghans surveyed lacked sufficient food, many because they could not get access to cash to pay for items.
Even before the takeover by the Islamic Emirate, food circumstances in Afghanistan were dire.
Mary-Ellen McGroarty, the WFP Country Director for Afghanistan said: “It’s critical for the humanitarian effort that in the greatest time of need, that the international community stands alongside the women and children and men of Afghanistan, whose lives have been upended through no fault of their own,” she said.
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