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Afghanistan to send 250 delegates to Taliban meeting in Qatar

Former Taliban fighters (Lt. Joe Painter/Department of Defense)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The Afghan government has said it will send 250 delegates for talks with the Taliban in Qatar this week that are seen as a potential breakthrough in efforts to end the nearly 18-year war.

“The list of the Afghan government for the [April 19-21] Doha conference, which includes members introduced by political parties, independent political figures, and relevant institutions and represents all layers of Afghan society, was finalized today,” President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman Haroon Chakhansuri said on April 16.

However, the Taliban reminded the government that the organizers have made it clear to the delegates that they are participating in the talks as private individuals, and not representatives of the Kabul government.

“We must clarify that the hosts of this conference have explained in both written and verbal form that no one will be representing the Kabul administration in this conference,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement released on April 17.

“If any participant is affiliated with the Kabul administration…they shall partake in a personal capacity and express their own personal views as no one is allowed to represent the Kabul administration,” the statement said.

Mujahid also took issue with the size of the delegation, saying that “the hosts of this conference have no plans of accepting so many people from Kabul and neither is such participation normal in such conferences.”

He warned that the meeting was “an orderly and prearranged conference … not an invitation to some wedding or other party at a hotel in Kabul.”

The list was also criticized by some powerful opposition figures, including the powerful former warlord, Atta Mohammad Noor, who said it was not inclusive.

If the meeting goes on as planned, it will be the first meeting between Afghan government officials and Taliban representatives since failed peace talks held in Pakistan in 2015.

The three days of talks in the Qatari capital, Doha, come amid a push by the United States for a peace settlement with the Taliban.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy seeking a peace deal with the extremist group, has held several rounds of talks with the militants in Qatar in recent months, and a new round of meetings are scheduled later this month.

The Taliban has long refused to speak officially with Kabul, calling the government a “puppet” of the West.

Omar Daudzai, Ghani’s peace envoy, has said the Afghan delegation will go to Doha to “exchange views with the Taliban.”

The Taliban said those government officials attending the Doha talks will only “participate in a personal capacity.”

Taliban officials met a delegation of influential Afghan power brokers in Moscow in February, but those talks did not include members of Ghani’s government.

Those discussions marked the most significant contact between senior Afghan political figures and the militant group since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.