Taleban ‘ready for second round of talks with US’

ISLAMABAD (AP) – The Taleban are ready for a second round of talks with the US, possibly this month, which is likely to focus on prisoner exchanges, confidence building measures, and ways to move from back-door meetings to formal negotiations, said Taleban officials in separate interviews in recent days.

Speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to speak to the media, Taleban officials recounted details of a meeting held in July with Alice Wells, Washington’s top envoy to the region.

One of the officials said the meeting ended with a plan to meet again in September. The US has refused to confirm or deny that meeting.

Both the US and Afghan governments have insisted that talks on Afghanistan’s future would be Afghan-led, while direct talks between Washington and the Taleban — which the insurgents have long demanded — are said to be a stepping stone toward Afghan-to-Afghan talks. The Taleban have sought direct talks to settle US concerns about the Taleban’s participation in Afghanistan’s future as well as the presence of NATO and the US in the country.

The official, who spoke to The Associated Press from Qatar, where the Taleban maintain a political office, said they are waiting on Washington for a second meeting date.

During the July meeting, the Taleban asked for recognition of their political office in the Qatar capital of Doha as well as an end to restrictions against its top leaders before the start of the formal negotiations, they said.

The Taleban repeated their longstanding demand for the release of its prisoners in jails in Afghanistan, claiming as many as 2,000 are being held.

Washington has long been demanding the release of prisoners held by the Taleban including American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, two professors at the American University in Kabul who were kidnapped in August 2016 as they returned to their compound.

In a statement posted on its official website, the Taleban last month took the unusual step of withdrawing security promises to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), saying the ICRC had failed to help prisoners in Afghanistan’s Pul-e-Charkhi jail who were on a hunger strike to protest prison conditions.

The Taleban statement was unusual in that it was a rare time that the insurgent group threatened punitive action for alleged behaviour that was not Taleban-specific, but rather a general condemnation for a job it said was being poorly done.

The same statement warned all international organisations operating in Afghanistan to “understand that if they indulge in trivial or other irrelevant activities instead of focussing on the main needs of the oppressed people, the Emirate will treat them in a similar fashion as the decision taken against the Red Cross.”

Meanwhile, Taleban officials said talks between the US and Taleban are at a preliminary stage, still sorting out the simplest of details such as an agenda of formal talks, where those talks might be conducted and who would participate.