The Taliban have refused to engage in talks with a team of negotiators announced by the Afghan government, saying the move violates the insurgent group’s peace-building pact with the United States.
The insurgent refusal came on a day when Taliban fighters unleashed a new wave of attacks against government forces in northern Afghanistan and overran a district.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government on Thursday announced a 21-member “inclusive” team to negotiate a sustainable peace and power sharing with the Taliban.
U.S. special representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated and signed the deal with the Taliban on February 29, also hailed the proposed negotiating team as a “meaningful step," saying it moved the parties “significantly closer" to intra-Afghan negotiations.
But chief Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on Saturday dismissed the team, insisting it lacked representation of all Afghans. He said in a statement the Taliban has long maintained the government can participate in intra-Afghan negotiations only as a group like other factions in the country.
"But as the team is announced by the Kabul administration, it thus violates our principled policy and the agreement concluded with America,” Mujahid insisted.
The Taliban denounces the government as illegitimate and an American puppet.
Mujahid alleged Kabul’s move was meant to “monopolize” the issues and create “impediments” on the way to intra-Afghan negotiations.
"We shall only sit for talks with a negotiation team that conforms with our agreements and is constituted in accordance with the laid-out principles,” Mujahid said.
After weeks of hesitation, the Afghan government this week agreed in a video conference with Qatar-based Taliban leaders that Kabul would begin releasing 5,000 insurgent prisoners starting March 31 in exchange for 1,000 detainees, mostly security forces, in Taliban custody.
Under the U.S.-Taliban agreement, intra-Afghan talks would begin immediately after the prisoner swap was concluded.
But it was not clear whether the prisoner release would go ahead in the wake of refusal by the Taliban to negotiate with the government-appointed team.
For its part of the agreement, Washington has agreed to withdraw all American and coalition forces from Afghanistan in the next 14 months. The U.S. drawdown has already begun.
Praise from Pompeo
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also praised Afghan leaders Saturday for preparing an “inclusive” team to make intra-Afghan negotiations a success.
“I also applaud your commitment to begin releasing prisoners and your commendable effort to set conditions for peace and reconciliation,” Pompeo tweeted.
The chief U.S. diplomat again urged Ghani and his political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, to show the same commitment to form an “inclusive” government.
"This step, plus decisions already taken, can help all Afghans realize a brighter future,” Pompeo said on Twitter. He was referring to the lingering political dispute stemming from the September 28 Afghan presidential election.
Last month, the election commission, after multiple delays, declared Ghani, the incumbent, as the winner. But Abdullah rejected the outcome as fraudulent. They attended competing presidential inaugurations earlier this month, a move that has added to political tensions, prompting Pompeo to visit Kabul last week to try to resolve the crisis. He was not successful.
In a hard-hitting, post-visit statement, Pompeo announced a $1 billon reduction in U.S. assistance for Afghanistan and promised more cuts unless the rival leaders come together and settle the rift.
Fighting amid virus spread
Officials said Saturday that the Taliban had assaulted several northern provinces, including Kunduz, Badakhshan and Faryab.
The insurgents inflicted heavy casualties on Afghan security forces and captured the beleaguered Yumgan district in Badakhshan, while heavy clashes were reportedly also raging in the nearby Jurm district.
The Taliban were also targeting government outposts near the capital of troubled Kunduz province.
The renewed fighting comes amid domestic and international appeals for a cease-fire to help limit the spread of the coronavirus in Afghanistan, where more than 100 people have tested positive for the pandemic disease and cases are on the rise.
Afghan authorities have imposed a partial lockdown in Kabul and the western city of Herat, where most of the coronavirus cases are located. Herat borders Iran, and Afghan officials say nationals returning from the neighboring country have imported the deadly virus.