KABUL, March 31 (Reuters) – A three-member Taliban team arrived in Kabul on Tuesday to begin a prisoner exchange process pivotal to kick-starting talks between the insurgent group and negotiators named by the Afghan government to end the country’s 18-year-old war.
The peace talks, known as the intra-Afghan dialogue, were envisaged in an agreement signed between the United States and the Taliban in Doha, which also stipulated an exchange of 6,000 prisoners held by the Afghan government and the group.
“Our three-member technical team will help the process of prisoners’ release by identification of the prisoners, (and) their transportation,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters.
The prisoner release had been a sticking point in the starting of peace talks, with the Taliban and Afghan government differing over the process and timing of the exchange.
However, after weeks of back and forth, the process is set to begin with the arrival of the Taliban team, which will set up camp at a luxury hotel in Kabul.
“In this regard, they will do a kind of deal with the opposite side (Afghan government),” Mujahid said, adding, “their practical work would start in coming days.”
The Taliban had previously refused to speak to the U.S.-backed Afghan government directly.
The Taliban team had planned to send a larger, 10-member delegation, Mujahid said, but the size was reduced due to the coronavirus fallout in Afghanistan.
The talks also received a boost after a government-named negotiating team was endorsed by Abdullah Abdullah, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s main political rival.
“The formation of an inclusive negotiation team is an important step toward facilitating intra-Afghan negotiations,” Abdullah Abdullah said on Twitter.
Differences between Ghani and Abdullah over the result of the 2019 presidential elections threatened to derail the peace process with the Taliban – a fear voiced by major capitals around the world, particularly Washington.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also termed Tuesday’s developments “good news”, saying the team of negotiators announced by the government appeared inclusive.
Pompeo last week flew to Kabul and the Qatari capital Doha, where the Taliban have an office, to urge all sides to move forward with the process, which at that point was deadlocked.
“We’ve seen a (negotiating) team identified. Looks like it’s pretty inclusive, pretty broad. We’re happy about that,” Pompeo said at a news conference in Washington on Tuesday.
“We’ve begun to see some work done on prisoner releases, as well, all elements that have to come together so we can get to the inter Afghan negotiations, which ultimately will prove to be the only mechanism that has any hope of delivering peace and reconciliation to the people,” he added. (Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay in Washington, Writing by Gibran Peshimam, Editing by William Maclean)