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Taliban to meet US, Pakistan official on Feb 18 for peace talks in Afghanistan

Taliban to meet US, Pakistan official on Feb 18 for peace talks in Afghanistan
His unexpected announcement comes even as another round of negotiations between the two sides is scheduled in Qatar by the end of this month. Image Credit: Flickr

In a surprise announcement, the Afghan Taliban said that its negotiators would meet top US and Pakistani officials, including Prime Minister Imran Khan, on Monday in Islamabad as part of the ongoing peace talks to end the 17-year bloody war in Afghanistan. On the "formal invitation of the government of Pakistan, another meeting is scheduled to take place between the negotiation teams of the Islamic Emirate and the US on 18th of February, 2019 in Islamabad," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement on Wednesday.

His unexpected announcement comes even as another round of negotiations between the two sides is scheduled in Qatar by the end of this month. Mujahid said that the regular round of talks in Qatar would take place as scheduled on February 25.

Neither Washington nor Islamabad immediately confirmed the announcement by the Taliban. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the only three countries that recognised the Taliban regime before their removal by US-led forces in 2001.

The Taliban was earlier reluctant to hold talks with US officials, including Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, in Pakistan. Since being appointed in September last, Khalilzad has met with all sides in an attempt to end America's longest war in which the US has lost over 2,400 soldiers in more than 17 years.

The Taliban control nearly half of Afghanistan and are more powerful than at any time since the 2001 US-led invasion after the 9/11 terror attacks. In his statement, Mujahid said the Taliban's delegation would also meet Prime Minister Khan in Islamabad.

He said that in the meeting with Khan, the Taliban would have "comprehensive discussions about Pak-Afghan relations and issues pertaining to Afghan refugees and Afghan businessmen". Though there was no official confirmation, diplomatic sources in Pakistan said that the Taliban delegation would visit Pakistan and hold talks with both American and Pakistani officials.

On Tuesday, the Taliban announced a 14-member negotiating team, which includes five former inmates of the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison who were released in 2014 in exchange for US Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban in 2009. The Taliban team, headed by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, also includes Anas Haqqani, the jailed younger brother of the Haqqani network leader.

The Taliban have repeatedly demanded Anas Haqqani's release. Taliban's move to appoint him as a member of the negotiating team is seen as a tactic to secure his release before the talks in Qatar later this month. In a recent interview to a Pakistani TV channel, Mujahid said that despite the ongoing talks with the US and other regional powers, the Taliban had "not yet reached" any conclusion that would entail an immediate end to hostilities against America.

"We are forced to wage war. Our enemies are attacking us; therefore, we are also combating them," the Taliban spokesman said. In a series of tweets after six days of talks with the Taliban representatives in Doha last month, Khalilzad said the US has made "significant progress" in its peace talks with the Taliban.

"We have a draft of the framework that has to be fleshed out before it becomes an agreement," Khalilzad said at the time. "The Taliban have committed, to our satisfaction, to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals." But Mujahid in the interview said that even in Moscow talks, nothing concrete was achieved that would compel them to end the war and military pressure, the channel reported.

He insisted that the Taliban are holding talks with the United States "on their own initiative". US President Donald Trump reportedly wants to cut in half the 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan, and the Taliban leaders have made a US withdrawal a key condition in peace negotiations.

(With inputs from agencies.)

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