Afghan Taliban, US officials to meet in UAE as peace efforts intensify

Reuters , Monday 17 Dec 2018

Members of the Afghan Taliban. (AFP)

Afghan Taliban representatives and U.S. officials were due to meet in the United Arab Emirates on Monday, the Taliban's main spokesman said, amid diplomatic moves towards establishing the basis for talks to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan.

Zabihullah Mujahid said representatives from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE would also take part in the talks, which follow at least two meetings between Taliban officials and U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Qatar.

The U.S. embassy in Kabul would not confirm any meeting was due to take place.

The meetings come as diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict have intensified, although the Taliban have refused to deal directly with the internationally recognised government in Kabul, which it considers an illegitimate foreign-imposed regime.

The Taliban, seeking to reimpose strict Islamic law after their 2001 ouster, say the presence of international forces in Afghanistan is the main obstacle to peace. Even as the peace process gathers momentum, fighting has continued with heavy casualties on both sides.

Although the Afghan government has not taken part directly in the talks, a team from Kabul met U.S. and Saudi officials in the United Arab Emirates on Sunday, President Ashraf Ghani's National Security Adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, said.

As well as direct contacts with the Taliban, U.S. officials have stepped up efforts to win support from countries with an interest in Afghanistan, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Western diplomats said the decision to move the venue of the talks from Doha to the UAE underscored efforts to involve Saudi Arabia, which is hostile to Qatar, more closely in the peace process and to exert influence on its ally, Pakistan.

In recent months Saudi Arabia has offered a $6 billion rescue package to Islamabad as the country attempts to plug its rapidly deteriorating finances.

"At this juncture, if Saudi Arabia tells Pakistan to support the Afghan peace process then there is no way that Pakistan can ignore it," said a senior Western diplomat in Kabul.

Relations between Washington and Islamabad have long been strained over accusations that Pakistan supports insurgent groups in Afghanistan, a charge it denies. But earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump requested Pakistan's support to advance the Afghan peace process.

Senior members of the Taliban in Afghanistan said the talks would continue for three days. Taliban officials from the movement's political headquarters in Qatar and two representatives sent by Mullah Yaqub, elder son of Taliban founder late Mullah Mohammad Omar, will be present.

Yaqub's brothers-in-law, Mullah Siddiqullah and Mullah Ameer Khan Muttaqi, will take part, Taliban sources said on condition of anonymity.

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