ISLAMABAD (AP) — The Taliban's chief has finalized a negotiating team that is to have sweeping decision-making powers in upcoming intra-Afghan negotiations, the top Taliban negotiator told The Associated Press on Sunday.
Maulvi Hibatullah Akhunzada hand-picked the 20-member team, 13 of whom come from the Taliban's leadership council — around half of the council's total members.
The negotiating team will have the authority to set agendas, decide strategy and even sign agreements with the political leadership of the Afghan government in Kabul, lead Taliban negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai told AP.
“This is a powerful team ... All decision-making powers are with the negotiation team,” Stanikzai said.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who signed the peace deal with Washington on Feb. 29 paving the way for America’s troop withdrawal and the eventual intra-Afghan negotiations, will keep the powerful post as head of the Taliban’s political office in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar.
The critical intra-Afghan talks, which were laid out in the peace deal signed in February, were expected to begin Aug. 20 but have been plagued by relentless delays.
The talks are intended to set a road map for post-war Afghanistan. They will include a permanent cease-fire, the rights of minorities and women, constitutional changes and the fate of tens of thousands of armed Taliban and militias loyal to Kabul-allied warlords.
The first round of talks seemed imminent earlier this month, when a traditional grand council or jirga approved the immediate release of the remaining Taliban prisoners in government custody. Some diplomats optimistically told the AP that negotiations could begin as early as Aug. 10. But the government then defied the jirga decision, demanding the Taliban free 22 commandos in their custody before freeing the remaining Taliban.
“We will be ready for negotiations in the near future,” Stanikzai, the lead Taliban negotiator, said. “Now we urge the U.S. to convince the other side to end their excuses, release prisoners as soon as possible and come to the negotiation table.”
Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban’s political office, said last week that the Taliban had freed the 1,000 prisoners they had promised, and that he was not aware of the commandos.
According to the deal Washington signed with the Taliban, the Afghan government was to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, and the Taliban were to free 1,000 government and military men.
Under the U.S.-Taliban agreement, the withdrawal of American troops does not hinge on the success of intra-Afghan talks, but instead on commitments made by the Taliban to combat terrorist groups and ensure Afghanistan is not used as a staging ground for attacks on the U.S. and its allies.
Since signing the agreement, the Taliban have held to a promise not to attack U.S. and NATO troops, but have carried out regular attacks on Afghan security forces.
By November, less than 5,000 U.S. soldiers are set to be in Afghanistan, down from about 13,000 prior to the February agreement.
On Sunday Baradar, head of the Taliban political office, was travelling to Pakistan from Doha, just days after Islamabad issued fresh orders implementing the 2015 U.N. sanctions against the Taliban as well as a number of other outlawed groups. It wasn't immediately clear who Baradar would be meeting or the purpose of his visit, but Pakistan has been pressing for an early start to intra-Afghan negotiations.