Militants reject requests to meet "puppet" Afghan government
By Jibran Ahmad
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Jan 8 (Reuters) - Afghan Taliban representatives will meet U.S. officials for two days of peace talks starting on Wednesday, but they refuse to meet "puppet" Afghan government officials, senior Taliban members said.
The Taliban have rejected requests from regional powers to allow Afghan officials to take part in the talks, insisting that the United States is their main adversary in the 17-year war.
"This time we want to hold talks with the American officials," said a Taliban leader based in Afghanistan, adding that the talks in Qatar would involve a U.S. withdrawal, prisoner exchange and the lifting of a ban on movement of Taliban leaders.
The insurgents, seeking to reimpose strict Islamic law after their 2001 ouster by U.S.-led troops, called off a meeting with U.S. officials in Saudi Arabia this week because of Riyadh's insistence on bringing the Western-backed Afghan government to the table.
The war in Afghanistan is America's longest overseas military intervention. It has cost Washington nearly a trillion dollars and killed tens of thousands of people.
The talks will be the fourth in a series between Taliban leaders and U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.
"After mutual consultations, we are going to meet U.S. officials in Doha on Wednesday. The meeting will continue for two days," a senior member of the Taliban said on condition of anonymity.
Former Afghan Interior Minister Umer Daudzai, who is senior adviser to President Ashraf Ghani, is due in Pakistan on Tuesday where he is expected to meet Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.
Pakistani officials say Afghanistan will need foreign economic aid for years, even after any peace agreement has been signed, and have also been trying to push the Taliban to accept talks with Kabul.
A close aide to Ghani said the government was ready to meet the Taliban "anywhere and any time".
"Every country involved in Afghanistan expects the Taliban to hold direct talks with the Afghan government, but they have not agreed to meet us," the official said on condition of anonymity.
Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) took part in the last round of talks in December.
Western diplomats based in Kabul said Pakistan's cooperation in the peace process will be crucial to its success. Independent security analysts and diplomats said the neighbouring country's powerful military has kept close ties with the Afghan Taliban.
U.S. officials have accused Pakistan of providing safe haven to Taliban militants in its border regions and using them as an arm of its foreign policy. Pakistan denies the claim.
Turkey has said it will host leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Last week, Iran's deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, met Ghani in Kabul to discuss the peace process. The meeting was held after Taliban officials met with Iranian authorities in Tehran.
The United States, which sent troops to Afghanistan in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington and at the peak of the deployment had more than 100,000 troops in the country, withdrew most of its forces in 2014.
It keeps around 14,000 troops there as part of a NATO-led mission aiding Afghan security forces and hunting militants.
Reports last month about U.S. President Donald Trump's plans to withdraw thousands of troops from Afghanistan triggered uncertainty in Kabul which depends on the United States and other foreign powers for military support and training.
As peace talks gain momentum a draft agreement drawn up by the influential U.S. think tank RAND Corporation outlining the clauses for a potential peace deal has been circulated among Afghan officials and diplomats in Kabul.
The document, reviewed by Reuters, suggests that the United States and NATO withdraw their military missions in phases over an expected period of 18 months. It adds that the United States may continue providing civilian assistance and seek contributions from other donors.
The U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan and Zalmay Khalilzad's office in Washington did not immediately respond to requests for comment. (Additonal reporting by James Mackenzie in Islamabad, Hamid Shalizi and Rupam Jain in Kabul; Editing by Nick Macfie)
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