Taliban say new intra-Afghan peace talks to be held in China

KATHY GANNON
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Afghanistan Peace Talks

FILE - In this May 28, 2019 file photo, Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban's political office in Doha, speaks to the media in Moscow, Russia. The Taliban said Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019, that a fresh round of intra-Afghan peace talks is to be held in China next week. The announcement raises hopes for renewed negotiations, even as violence surges in Afghanistan’s 18-year war. Shaheen said Tuesday that the talks are planned for Oct. 28 and 29. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

ISLAMABAD (AP) — A fresh round of intra-Afghan peace talks will be held in China next week, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said Tuesday, raising hopes for renewed negotiations, even as violence surges in Afghanistan's 18-year war.

The talks planned for Oct. 28 and 29 will be the first meeting between Taliban and prominent Afghans from Kabul since a July round of talks held in Doha, the capital of the Middle Eastern State of Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office.

On Monday, the U.S. State Department said its peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, started a fresh round of talks with European, NATO and U.N. allies about ending the war.

Khalilzad will later meet with Russian and Chinese representatives "to discuss shared interests in seeing the war in Afghanistan come to an end," the State Department said.

For nearly a year, Khalilzad led the first direct U.S. talks with the Taliban. However, in September, just as a deal seemed imminent, President Donald Trump declared the deal dead after a series of attacks in the Afghan capital killed more than a dozen people, including a U.S. soldier.

Trump continued to call for the withdrawal of the estimated 14,000 American soldiers still in Afghanistan, saying they had taken over the job of policing the country, a job the government's security forces should be doing.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who made his first visit to Afghanistan last weekend, told reporters traveling with him that he believes the U.S. can reduce its force in Afghanistan to 8,600 without hurting the counterterrorism fight against al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.

But Esper said any withdrawal would happen as part of a peace agreement with the Taliban.

Increasingly in recent weeks signs have emerged of a renewed effort to get peace talks with the Taliban restarted. Earlier this month, Khalilzad met Taliban chief negotiator and co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad — their first meeting since Trump declared talks dead.

The State department said Khalilzad's trip to Pakistan wasn't about restarting talks with the Taliban, yet their meeting seemed a beginning.

Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman, said the group was ready to resume talks from where they left off in September. According to him, a peace deal was ready for signing and a date had even been selected, Sept. 13.

Immediately upon signing, the Taliban had agreed to announce a cease-fire, but only against U.S. and NATO troops, Shaheen said. The deal also called for a cease-fire with Afghanistan's security forces to be the first order of business at the first intra-Afghan negotiations, which were scheduled for Sept. 23, according to Shaheen.

The peace deal the Taliban had hammered out with Khalilzad was also to include the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for prisoners being held by the Taliban, according to a second Taliban official, who did not want to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

A separate set of negotiations were held for the release of two Western professors at the American University in Kabul — American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks — kidnapped in 2016. The two were to be exchanged for 11 Taliban prisoners, including Anas Haqqani, the brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, deputy head of the Taliban and leader of the much feared Haqqani network. An uncle of the Haqqanis was also to be released.

Khalilzad has been criticized by the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani for shrouding his talks with the Taliban in secrecy. The Taliban have refused to talk directly with Ghani's government calling them U.S. puppets after the 2014 presidential elections were so deeply disputed that the United States sent the then Secretary of State John Kerry to Kabul. Kerry cobbled together a so-called Unity Government making both Ghani and his chief rival Abdulla Abdullah equal partners in leading the government.

The new presidential polls held on Sept. 28 appeared to be headed for a similar controversy as preliminary results have yet to be announced amid scores of allegations of fraud and corruption have emerged.

Ghani's spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, would not comment on Shaheen's announcement of an upcoming meeting in China.

Sediqqi did say that a "sustainable peace" would be possible only if the Afghan government took the lead.

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Associated Press Writer Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan contributed to this report