U.S. envoy meets new Taliban chief negotiator as Afghan peace talks near

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Jibran Ahmad

KABUL/PESHAWAR (Reuters) – U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has held a meeting in Doha with the head of the new Taliban team due to open peace talks with a team representing the Afghan government, the Islamist insurgent group said on Tuesday.

The negotiations, the result of an agreement between Washington and the Taliban, are to begin in Doha after the release of the last half-dozen or so of 5,000 Taliban prisoners.

The Afghan negotiators had been expected to fly from Kabul to Doha this week, but are awaiting a signal from the Afghan government that the release – to which Western governments have objected – is going ahead.

In Doha, the head of the Taliban’s political office, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and the new head of the Taliban’s negotiating team, Abdul Hakim Haqqani, met with Khalilzad and Qatar’s deputy prime minister on Monday, Taliban spokesman Dr. Mohammad Naeem said in a statement shared on Twitter.

“Issues related to the prisoners’ release and immediate start of the intra-Afghan talks were discussed,” Naeem said.

Talks with American officials had for the last two years been led by Baradar, who signed a peace deal with Washington this year that paved the way for an international troop withdrawal and intra-Afghan negotiations.

Last week, however, Taliban supreme leader Haibatullah Akhunzada announced that a new, 21-member team would be headed by Haqqani and not Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban, who has been left out entirely.

Three Taliban commanders based in Afghanistan told Reuters that senior fighters on the ground had in recent weeks expressed reservations about Baradar’s dominance in the talks.

However, Taliban officials told Reuters the team had been changed to give it power to take decisions on the spot.

Haqqani, the Taliban’s former shadow chief justice, also heads its powerful council of religious scholars, according to two senior Taliban officials who did not want to named.

One official said Akhunzada trusted Haqqani more than anyone else in the group: “(His) presence basically means our supreme leader himself will attend the peace talks.”

A diplomat following the peace process from Kabul told Reuters, on condition of anonymity: “Baradar might be effective, but Haqqani is senior. What we know is this was done to have a more authoritative team that can take the decision over there.”

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul and Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar; Additional reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad and Rupam Nair in Mumbai; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Afghan government releases 80 of final 400 Taliban prisoners

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – The Afghan government has begun releasing the last Taliban prisoners from a final batch of 400 who the militants want freed before they agree to start peace negotiations, a security agency spokesman said on Friday.

The government agreed on Sunday to release the 400 “hard-core” prisoners after consulting a grand assembly of elders and other community leaders, known as a Loya Jirga.

“The government … yesterday released 80 Taliban convicts out of the 400 that the Consultative Loya Jirga sanctioned for release to speed up efforts for direct talks and a lasting, nationwide ceasefire,” said Javid Faisal, spokesman for the National Security Council.

He did not say when the remaining 320 would be set free.

Disagreement over the release of the prisoners, who include some of those accused in connection with some of Afghanistan’s bloodiest attacks, has delayed negotiations for months as the United States withdraws troops under a deal signed with the Taliban in February.

President Ashraf Ghani on Monday issued a decree to release the final batch of prisoners.

The Taliban did not immediately respond to request for comment. They have previously said they would sit down for peace talks with the U.S.-backed government in Qatar within a week of the release of the last of the prisoners.

The Taliban have always refused to talk to the government, dismissing it as a U.S. “puppet”.

But they agreed to power-sharing talks under the deal struck with the United States, on the withdrawal of its troops in exchange for Taliban security guarantees.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Afghan President signs decree to release final batch of Taliban prisoners – sources

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani on Monday issued a decree to release the final batch of prisoners demanded by the insurgent Taliban as a condition to move to peace talks, sources told Reuters.

“It is signed,” a presidential palace source said on Monday evening, a day after a grand assembly recommended Ghani release 400 ‘hardcore’ prisoners so that peace talks could begin in Doha.

The Taliban have said that once the prisoners are released they would start peace talks within a week after months of delays since the United States signed a troop withdrawal deal in February.

(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi; writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Blast kills at least 23 at cattle market in southern Afghanistan

Smoke rises from police headquarters while Afghan security forces keep watch after a suicide car bomber and gunmen attacked the provincial police headquarters in Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, Afghanistan October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

KABUL (Reuters) – At least 23 civilians were killed in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province and dozens were wounded when rockets hit a cattle market on Monday, Afghan government and Taliban officials said.

The warring sides blamed each other for the attack on the open-air weekly cattle market in Sangin district, where hundreds of villagers from neighboring districts had gathered to trade sheep and goats.

A spokesman for Helmand’s governor said several rockets fired by Taliban insurgents landed close to the cattle market, killing 23 civilians, including children.

Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman said the Afghan army fired several rounds of mortar bombs on civilian houses and the cattle market, killing dozens of villagers.

Khushakyar, who goes by a single name, said he was trying to sell a calf when the rockets hit the market. He said his two nephews were killed and his son was wounded.

“I saw around 20 bodies on the ground,” he said, adding that dozens were wounded and “livestock lay dead next to men.”

Some residents of Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold, said the shelling occurred during fierce clashes between Taliban militants and government security forces in residential areas surrounding the market.

There has been an uptick in violence by the Taliban against the Afghan government, even though the insurgents, fighting to reintroduce strict Islamic law after being ousted from power in 2001, signed a troop withdrawal agreement with the United States in February designed to lead to peace negotiations with the Afghan government.

More than 500 civilians were killed and 760 others wounded because of fighting in Afghanistan in the first three months of 2020, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in late April.

(Reporting by Zainullah Stanekzai in Helmand, Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul, Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Toby Chopra and Timothy Heritage)

Taliban prisoner issue almost resolved, peace talks expected ‘soon’: sources, officials

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Charlotte Greenfield

KABUL/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Peace talks between warring Afghan factions are expected to start as soon as they iron out their main differences over the release of the “most dangerous” Taliban prisoners, officials and sources from both sides said.

Despite a major push by the United States, there has been a delay in the intra-Afghan talks as the Afghan government and some key NATO members are uncomfortable about the release of Taliban commanders accused of conducting large-scale attacks that killed civilians in recent years.

An Afghan government source said the prisoner issue had largely been resolved and they would release an alternative set of prisoners with talks expected to start mid-July.

“The Taliban agreed because it was delaying the talks,” he said, adding the government had also demanded a guarantee from the Taliban that it was no longer holding any Afghan security force prisoners.

A source close to the Taliban said the group was willing to move forward so long as most of the 5,000 prisoners demanded were released.

“I don’t think releasing or not releasing 200 or 300 prisoners will matter in the process, the Taliban can agree for (those) prisoners to remain in Afghan government custody,” the source said.

Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen could not be reached for comment but has reiterated in recent weeks that the group expects the full terms of their February agreement with the United States, including the release of 5,000 prisoners, to be implemented before talks can start.

Pakistan, seen as a key regional player in getting the Taliban to peace talks, said it expected negotiations to begin very soon and was optimistic that sticking points, including the prisoner issue, would be resolved.

“I think we are almost there,” Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told Reuters in an interview on Thursday. “The impediments have been addressed one by one and now there is a general agreement that this is the way forward…I’m expecting things to be begin quickly.”

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Hamid Shalizi and Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

West reluctant for ‘dangerous’ Taliban prisoners to be freed: sources

By Hamid Shalizi and Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – Western powers are backing the Afghan government’s refusal to free hundreds of prisoners accused of some of Afghanistan’s most violent attacks, a release demanded by the Taliban as a condition to start peace talks, five sources told Reuters.

The issue is a final major sticking point which, if resolved, is expected to lead quickly to intra-Afghan peace negotiations in Qatar aimed at ending more than 18 years of war in a U.S.-brokered peace process.

“The contentious part right now is the prisoners issue,” a senior government source told Reuters. Two European diplomats, an Asian diplomat and another Afghan official confirmed his account.

“There are some dangerous Taliban fighters named in the list, and releasing them is literally crossing a red line,” said a senior European diplomat.

“Some NATO members find it extremely uncomfortable to support the release of Taliban prisoners who were behind large-scale suicide attacks on minority groups and on expats.”

The Taliban struck a troop withdrawal agreement with the United States in February to pave the way for talks with the Afghan government. But the insurgent group insisted a list of 5,000 prisoners be released, leading to months of delay as the Afghan government initially refused to set free that many prisoners before talks.

One Afghan security source and one diplomatic source told Reuters the United States had also expressed reservations about releasing some of the group that NATO and the Afghan government were objecting to setting free.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said it wanted peace talks to be launched as soon as possible.

“The United States continues to be encouraged by the great progress on prisoners release by both sides. We support additional releases by both sides to get the issue off the table,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

The sources said that if all prisoners walked free, including those accused of killing many civilians in some of Afghanistan’s bloodiest attacks, it would give the impression the insurgent group had the upper hand over the government while negotiations got underway.

The sources spoke on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the matter.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Thursday the group still insisted that all 5,000 be released so talks could begin.

The Afghan government in recent weeks released around 3,000 of the prisoners and is prepared to set free all but a few hundred, government sources said. The Taliban has also released hundreds of prisoners.

Included in the contentious group were prisoners involved in large-scale attacks, such as the 2017 truck bombing near Germany’s embassy in Kabul, which killed more than 150, according to two sources.

The Taliban denied high-profile attackers were on their list.

“There are no such people … these are just excuses to create barriers against the peace process,” Mujahid said.

(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Rupam Jain and Charlotte Greenfield; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield and Tom Brown; Editing by Alison Williams)

Exclusive: U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan down to close to 8,600 ahead of schedule – sources

Exclusive: U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan down to close to 8,600 ahead of schedule – sources
By Idrees Ali and Rupam Jain

WASHINGTON/MUMBAI (Reuters) – U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan is down to nearly 8,600, well ahead of a schedule agreed with Taliban militants in late February, in part because of concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, U.S. and NATO officials said.

A key provision of the Feb. 29 agreement between the Taliban and the United States, to which the Afghan government was not a party, involved a U.S. commitment to reduce its military footprint in Afghanistan from about 13,000 to 8,600 by mid-July and, conditions permitting, to zero by May 2021.

Two senior sources in Kabul said the 8,600 target was likely to be achieved by early June.

Two U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the United States was close to 8,600 troops and could reach that number in coming days.

“Due to COVID-19 concerns, we are moving towards that planned drawdown faster than anticipated,” one of the officials said.

The other U.S. official said the United States had focused on quickly removing non-essential personnel and those considered to be at high risk from the virus.

All four sources asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Last month CNN reported that the United States had less than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, putting the Trump administration ahead of schedule.

U.S. forces are in Afghanistan to conduct counter-insurgency operations. A few thousand U.S. soldiers work with troops from 37 NATO partner countries to train, advise and assist Afghan forces.

NATO’s mission in the country totaled 16,551 troops in February, according to official data available on its website.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump there were “7,000-some-odd” U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan but officials clarified that number was slightly over 8,600 troops.

Trump renewed his desire for a full military withdrawal from Afghanistan but added that he had not set a target date, amid speculation he might make ending America’s longest war part of his re-election campaign.

NATO DILEMMA

The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan with an iron fist from 1996 before being ousted by U.S.-led troops in 2001, have sought to topple the Western-backed government in Kabul and reimpose Islamic rule. They dismiss the Kabul government as a puppet of the United States.

The faster-than-expected withdrawal has put NATO in a dilemma as to whether it should consider swiftly sending back some non-U.S. troops from Afghanistan as well, two NATO sources said.

“The drawdown by the U.S. was expected to be done in 135 days but it’s clear that they have almost completed the process in just about 90 days,” said a senior Western official in Kabul on condition of anonymity.

The official said that some other NATO soldiers would be withdrawn before schedule.

The Taliban have recently increased attacks in a number of provinces, despite the Afghan government releasing prisoners as per the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in Doha.

In a statement, the Pentagon said it expected to be at 8,600 troops within 135 days of signing the agreement, but declined to say how many troops were currently in Afghanistan.

“We are not providing updates on current troop levels primarily due to operational security concerns associated with the drawdown,” Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Campbell said.

Officials are now looking at the pace of the drawdown beyond 8,600.

(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Euan Rocha and Nick Macfie)

U.S. says Islamic State conducted attack on Kabul hospital

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday blamed Islamic State militants — not the Taliban — for a gruesome hospital attack in Afghanistan this week that killed two newborn babies, and it renewed calls for Afghans to embrace a troubled peace push with the Taliban insurgency.

But it was unclear if the U.S. declaration would be enough to bolster the peace effort and reverse a decision by the Kabul government to resume offensive operations against the Taliban.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ordered the military on Tuesday to switch to “offensive mode” against the Taliban following the hospital attack in Kabul and a suicide bombing in Nangarhar province that killed scores of people.

U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad blamed Islamic State for both attacks in a statement issued on Twitter, saying the group opposed any Taliban peace agreement and sought to trigger an Iraq-style sectarian war in Afghanistan.

“Rather than falling into the ISIS trap and delay peace or create obstacles, Afghans must come together to crush this menace and pursue a historic peace opportunity,” Khalilzad said.

“No more excuses. Afghans, and the world, deserve better.”

An affiliate of the Islamic State militant group claimed responsibility for the Nangarhar bombing, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. No one has claimed the hospital attack.

The Taliban denied involvement in either attack, but the government accused the group of fostering an environment in which terrorism thrives or of working with other militant groups who could have been involved, straining U.S. efforts to bring the insurgents and Afghan government together.

The attacks were another setback to U.S. President Donald Trump’s stalled plans to bring peace to Afghanistan and end America’s longest war.

A Feb. 29 U.S.-Taliban deal called for a phased U.S. troop withdrawal and for the Afghan government and Taliban to release some prisoners by March 10, when peace talks were to start.

Intra-Afghan peace talks have yet to occur and there is some bitterness within the Afghan government, which was not a party to the Feb. 29 deal, that the United States undercut their leverage by negotiating directly with the Taliban.

Ghani’s decision to revive offensive operations is supported by many opposition figures, who believe Washington’s sole focus is to keep the U.S. troop withdrawal plan on track to help Trump win a second term in the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election.

(Reporting by Eric Beech and Phil Stewart; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Daniel Wallis)

Maternity ward massacre shakes Afghanistan and its peace process

By Orooj Hakimi, Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Hamid Shalizi

KABUL (Reuters) – After struggling to get pregnant for years, Zainab, 27, gave birth to a baby boy on Tuesday morning at a small hospital in the southwestern corner of Kabul. She was overjoyed and named the boy Omid, meaning ‘hope’ in Dari.

At around 10 a.m. (0530 GMT), an hour before she and her family were set to return home to neighboring Bamiyan province a three-hour drive away, three gunmen disguised as police burst into the hospital’s maternity ward and started shooting.

Zainab, who rushed back from the washroom after hearing the commotion, collapsed as she took in the scene. She spent seven years trying to have a child, waited nine months to meet her son and had just four hours with him before he was killed.

“I brought my daughter-in-law to Kabul so that she would not lose her baby,” said Zahra Muhammadi, Zainab’s mother-in-law, unable to contain her grief. “Today we’ll take his dead body to Bamiyan.”

No group has claimed responsibility for the massacre of 24 people, including 16 women and two newborns. At least six babies lost their mothers in an attack that has shaken even the war-torn nation numbed by years of militant violence.

“In my more than 20-year career I have not witnessed such a horrific, brutal act,” said Dr. Hassan Kamel, director of Ataturk Children’s Hospital in Kabul.

The raid, on the same day that at least 32 people died in a suicide bomb attack on a funeral in the eastern province of Nangarhar, threatens to derail progress towards U.S.-brokered peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

President Ashraf Ghani condemned the attacks and ordered the military to switch to offensive mode rather than the defensive tactics it adopted while U.S. troops withdraw from the country after a long, inconclusive war.

The Taliban, the main militant group, has denied involvement in both attacks, although trust among officials and the broader public has worn thin. An offshoot of Islamic State is also among the suspects: it admitted it was behind the Nangarhar bloodshed.

WE NAMED HIM ‘HOPE’

Muhammadi, the mother-in-law, said she saw one of the attackers firing at pregnant women and new mothers, even as they cowered under hospital beds.

“We gave him the name Omid. Hope for a better future, hope for a better Afghanistan and hope for a mother who has been struggling to have a child for years,” she told Reuters by telephone in Kabul.

The gunmen then turned to target the cradle where Omid had been asleep. As the sound of bullets reverberated through the ward, Muhammadi said she fainted in fear.

“When I opened my eyes, I saw that my grandson’s body had fallen to the ground, covered in blood,” she recalled, as she wailed with grief.

The Kabul attack began in the morning when gunmen entered the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital, throwing grenades and shooting, government officials said. Security forces had killed the attackers by the afternoon.

The 100-bed, government-run hospital hosted a maternity clinic run by Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French name Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Just hours before the attack, MSF had tweeted a photo of a newborn in his mother’s arms at the clinic after being delivered safely by emergency caesarean section.

On Wednesday, the group condemned the attack, calling it “sickening” and “cowardly”.

“Whilst fighting was ongoing, one woman gave birth to her baby and both are doing well,” MSF said in a statement. “More than ever, MSF stands in solidarity with the Afghan people.”

Deborah Lyons, head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, condemned the hospital assault in a tweet. “Who attacks newborn babies and new mothers? Who does this? The most innocent of innocents, a baby! Why?”

‘LITTLE POINT’ IN PEACE TALKS

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday condemned the two attacks, noted the Taliban had denied responsibility and said the lack of a peace deal left the country vulnerable to such violence.

Pompeo also described the stalled peace effort, which planned for intra-Afghan peace talks to begin on March 10, as “a critical opportunity for Afghans to … build a united front against the menace of terrorism.” Talks have yet to start.

The Pentagon declined to comment on Ghani’s stated intent to restart offensive operations, saying only that the U.S. military continued to reserve the right to defend Afghan security forces if they are attacked by the Taliban.

Relations between the government in Kabul and the Taliban movement, which was ousted from power in 2001 by a U.S.-backed assault in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, are already frayed, and Tuesday’s events will make any rapprochement harder.

“There seems little point in continuing to engage Taliban in ‘peace talks’,” Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib said in a tweet.

For Afghanistan, the hospital attack also risks further disrupting a healthcare network that is creaking amid the challenges of dealing with the new coronavirus pandemic.

More than a third of the coronavirus cases in Kabul have been among doctors and healthcare staff, Reuters reported in early May.

The high rate of infection among healthcare workers has already sparked alarm among medics and some doctors have closed their clinics. At least 5,226 people have been infected by the coronavirus and 132 have died, according to the health ministry.

KABUL MEDICAL COMMUNITY SHAKEN

The attack has shaken the small medical community in Kabul to its core.

Nurses and doctors who survived the hospital attack said they were in shock, and resuming duties would be an emotional challenge on top of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

“Last night I could not sleep, as scary scenes of the attack kept crossing my mind,” said Masouma Qurbanzada, a midwife who saw the killings.

“Since yesterday my family has been telling me to stop working in the hospital, nothing is worth my life. But I told them ‘No, I will not stop working as a health worker’.”

Officials at MSF said they were working to try to normalise operations and had received support from other hospitals to treat dozens of infants and adults wounded in the attack.

Some medics at the hospital, however, said it would be hard to move on.

“The gunmen blew up a water tank and then started shooting women. I saw a pool of water and blood from the small gap of a safe room where some of us managed to lock ourselves,” said a nurse with MSF, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“I saw patients being killed even as they begged and pleaded for their life in the holy month of Ramadan. It is very hard for me to work now.”

(Additional reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad, Ahmad Sultan in Jalalabad; Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Euan Rocha and Mike Collett-White)

‘Historic’ U.S.-Taliban pact to be signed soon, says Taliban leader

KABUL (Reuters) – The Taliban’s deputy leader said the group would soon sign a agreement with the United States to reduce violence for seven days, adding that militant commanders were “fully committed” to observing the “historic” accord.

“That we today stand at the threshold of a peace agreement with the United States is no small milestone,” Sirajuddin Haqqani wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times, in the first significant public statement by a Taliban leader on the accord for a week-long reduction in violence (RIV).

The agreement in principle, which was struck during negotiations between U.S. and Taliban representatives in Qatar, could lead to a withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.

“Achieving the potential of the agreement, ensuring its success and earning lasting peace will depend on an equally scrupulous observance by the United States of each of its commitments,” wrote Haqqani, who is also head of the Pakistan-linked Haqqani Network.

Clashes between Afghan forces and Taliban fighters have continued, but Afghanistan’s acting interior minister said on Tuesday an agreement to cut violence would be enforced within five days.

Haqqani also addressed fears about Afghanistan becoming once again a springboard for Islamist militants, calling such concerns “inflated.”

Writing about how women’s rights in Afghanistan would look if foreign forces left, Haqqani envisioned an “Islamic system” in which “the rights of women that are granted by Islam — from the right to education to the right to work — are protected.”

The Taliban banned women from education and work and only let them leave their homes in the company of a male relative. Overnight, women disappeared behind the all-enveloping burqa, their activities restricted to their homes.

Haqqani stressed in the piece the need for a complete withdrawal of foreign forces. Officials in Afghanistan and the United States have said a certain number of troops would remain in the country to ensure stability.

The Afghan presidential palace reacted strongly to the article.

“It is sad that the (New York Times) has given their platform to an individual who is on a designated terrorist list. He and his network are behind ruthless attacks against Afghans and foreigners,” Sediq Sediqqi, a palace spokesman, told Reuters.

Meanwhile, recently reelected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad for the second time in 24 hours on Thursday to discuss issues related to peace talks and the details of the RIV, Sediqqi said on Twitter.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Helen Popper)