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Video chat with Taliban keeps Afghan peace deal on life support

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (center right) and Afghan national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib (center left) walked past an honor guard at the Presidential Palace in Kabul Monday.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (center right) and Afghan national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib (center left) walked past an honor guard at the Presidential Palace in Kabul Monday.Afghan Presidential Palace via AP

KABUL — Balancing coronavirus concerns with fears that a painstakingly negotiated peace deal could fall apart, Afghan government officials met by videoconference Sunday with Taliban delegates to discuss technical details of a prisoner release that is a part of the deal, officials said.

Though the meeting was not the formal start of direct talks between the government and the Taliban — that step is predicated on reaching agreement on the prisoner exchange — the technical discussion was the first negotiating meeting between them since the United States and the insurgents signed a deal last month.

Concerns about the global coronavirus pandemic, however, meant that the talks happened by video chat. And that in itself was a notable moment given the Taliban’s origins as a national government that largely banned television and music.

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The prisoner exchange, involving up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 Afghan government prisoners, as called for in the deal the Americans signed, has been an extreme point of contention. The prisoners were supposed to be released before the beginning of Afghan negotiations March 10.

President Ashraf Ghani’s government has vehemently disagreed with the terms the United States agreed to with the Taliban, delaying the future steps of the peace deal. After much shuttle diplomacy by the US special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, Ghani agreed only to a phased release of the prisoners in small batches and conditioned it on Taliban halting their attacks — something the insurgents have said goes against what they have signed with the United States.

“Today, the US and Qatar facilitated the first Afghan government to Taliban technical talks on prisoner releases, via Skype video conferencing,” Khalilzad, who has been in Kabul for several weeks trying to find a solution to the prisoner release and calm a political crisis that has resulted in a split government, said in a series of Twitter posts late Sunday.

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“Everyone clearly understands the coronavirus threat makes prisoner releases that much more urgent.”

The country’s political crisis — a grinding election dispute between Ghani and his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah — brought another American diplomat to Kabul on Monday: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Ghani was declared the winner of a bitterly disputed election last month. Abdullah also declared himself winner and held his own inauguration next door. Days of efforts by Khalilzad, including into the early hours of inauguration day, failed to prevent the announcement of two presidents and keep the country’s elite united around the peace process.

During his eight hours in Kabul, Pompeo met with both Afghan leaders, separately and then together, in an attempt to find a way to get them to work together.

For the top American diplomat to travel halfway around the world in the middle of a global coronavirus crisis to tend to internal Afghan bickering, the message was clear: The political situation in the country was very serious.

A senior State Department official in Kabul told reporters traveling with Pompeo that “we are in a crisis” that could jeopardize the US agreement to end the long war and that the secretary had essentially come with a warning: “to point out what our expectations are and what that assessment is if they don’t do the right thing.”

Pompeo, however, left Afghanistan without saying publicly whether progress had been made on the impasse. Afghan officials suggested the leaders had not reached a resolution.

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In the videoconference with the Taliban over the weekend, the discussions lasted 2½ hours, and attendants were dialed in from five locations, according to a senior Afghan official and a senior Taliban official.

The US team, led by Khalilzad, and a team of Qatari diplomats were facilitating the discussions. The Afghan government delegation was led by the deputy national security adviser, Salem Shah Ibrahimi. The Taliban delegation included several senior members of the group, including two negotiators from their political office in Doha and Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, who leads their prisoners’ commission.

“The talks solely focused on prisoner release, and there were initial agreements on some issues regarding the release of prisoners,” said Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban’s negotiating team.

Shaheen said the sides would hold another videoconference Tuesday.

Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s national security adviser, suggested that the call had covered other issues in addition to “views on initial technical steps” to make the prisoner release possible.

“All sides emphasized the importance of a reduction in violence, direct negotiations, and a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire,” Mohib said in a statement on Twitter.

In the days before signing the deal with the United States, the Taliban observed a partial cease-fire with the Afghan government. But that deal included no agreement on a lasting violence reduction that was envisioned as part of the ensuing talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

In recent weeks, the Taliban have made clear that they see violence as a major part of their leverage in talks and have intensified their operations across Afghanistan. The Afghan forces, meanwhile, have largely remained in “active defense” and are beginning to suffer heavy casualties.

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