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Taliban says intra-Afghan talks unlikely to start on schedule

Afghan National Army troops move out from the 201 Corps headquarters at Tactical Base Gamberi in preparation for Operation Iron Triangle July 30, 2015. (Capt. Jarrod Morris, TAAC-E Public Affairs/U.S. Army)

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

The Taliban says talks scheduled this week with Afghanistan’s government are unlikely to take place on time because of plans by two rivals for the Afghan presidency to conduct parallel swearing-in ceremonies.

Since the United States signed a conditional peace agreement on February 29 with Taliban negotiators in Doha, Washington has been trying to push the Afghan government toward direct talks with the Taliban.

The so-called intra-Afghan talks are meant to bring together negotiators from the Taliban and the Afghan government as well as representatives from a cross section of Afghan society.

The Doha agreement calls for an exchange of prisoners to be completed before the start of the intra-Afghan dialogue on March 10.

But Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid says he doesn’t think officials in Kabul will complete the prisoner exchange in time because of a disagreement between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his main rival in the September 2019 presidential election, Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah.

In February, after months of delay, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission announced that Ghani had been reelected with just over 50 percent of the first-round vote.

Afghan election officials said Abdullah finished in second place with just over 39 percent of the vote.

But Abdullah, alleging widespread fraud during the vote count, insists that he won the election and has vowed to form his own government.

Both Ghani and Abdullah have issued invitations to parallel swearing-in ceremonies on March 9.

“Instead of swearing in, we want them to focus on intra-Afghan talks,” Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, told Reuters on March 8. “We call upon them to leave the internal disagreements, stop the swearing in, and work for peace.”

Mujahid said no practical steps have been taken by Kabul for the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners held in Afghan jails.

Ghani has publicly rejected the proposed release of the Taliban prisoners, despite pressure from Washington and the Taliban’s promise to reciprocate by releasing 1,000 Afghan troops and civilian government employees it has detained.

Nevertheless, Mujahid said meetings between prison keepers from both sides took place in Doha on March 7-8.

Those meetings were the first known official formal contacts between the Afghan government and the Taliban since the conditional peace deal was signed by the Taliban and Washington.