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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Taliban says it is ready for second round of US talks

Afghan movement stresses introduction of Sharia law crucial to any negotiations

Afghan army troops pose with an alleged Taliban militant during a three-day ceasefire for Eid Al Fitr, in Kabul in June. EPA
Afghan army troops pose with an alleged Taliban militant during a three-day ceasefire for Eid Al Fitr, in Kabul in June. EPA

Any Afghanistan peace deal must re-introduce Sharia law, Taliban leaders said on Wednesday as the movement prepares for a second round of talks with America.

Taliban and US officials are expected to meet in the coming weeks for follow-up discussions after the enemies' first direct talks in the Gulf in July.

Discussions will focus on confidence-building measures as the US tries to jump start a peace process to end 17 years of fighting since America ousted the Taliban.

A prisoner release and another ceasefire following this summer's three-day Eid holiday truce are expected to be discussed, as well as steps to open formal negotiations and include the Kabul government.

Discussions are understood to be at the earliest stage, with an outline for any formal talks undecided. Yet as both sides prepared, commanders from the military wing of the Taliban stressed to The National they considered the imposition of sharia a cornerstone of their long-running armed struggle.

One senior military commander familiar with the movement's negotiating stance said: “Our jihad and sacrifices are for the implementation of Sharia law in Afghanistan."

Another military commander also insisted there could be no settlement without Sharia.

“Without Sharia, talks are impossible. We cannot lose all our sacrifices.”

Their comments come after Taliban chief Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada used his Eid message last month to reassure followers that his negotiating team would only make decisions “that preserve our Islamic goals”.

The Taliban have said the withdrawal of US troops is also a central demand.

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Western officials admit that any substantive talks would need to consider rewriting the Afghan constitution adopted after the fall of the Taliban, and the 2014 security pact with Washington allowing US troops to remain in the country.

Yet any suggestion of a return to the strict and brutally enforced Sharia Taliban regime of the 1990s will prove unacceptable to the Afghan government and Washington.

July's talks saw discussions with Alice Wells, Washington's top envoy to the region, Taliban officials told the Associated Press.

At that meeting, the Taliban asked for recognition of their political office in the Qatar capital of Doha and asked for the removal of their senior leadership from sanctions blacklists before formal negotiations could begin.

The Taliban repeated their long-standing demand for the release of its prisoners in jails in Afghanistan, claiming as many as 2,000 are being held.

Washington also has demands for prisoner releases, 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.

July's meeting also discussed a US request for a two-month ceasefire to allow for peaceful parliamentary elections scheduled for next month and a visit by Taliban officials to prisoners in government custody. There was no agreement on either issue.

A senior Western official told The National that a second round of talks had been expected this month, though Donald Trump's recent appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as special adviser on Afghanistan could delay the second round into October.

Mr Khalilzad is expected to lead the US delegation when they again meet the Taliban's Doha team.

While the Taliban's public negotiation stance has remained implacable, the official said the insurgent militants had shown small signs of compromise.

Taliban political officials showed signs of willingness to eventually talk to Ashraf Ghani's Afghan government after years of dismissing it as a US puppet.

They have signalled the potential use of a mediator to get the talks going and shifted from demanding an immediate US pull out to discussing a timetable for withdrawal of America's 15,000 troops.

But the official said the spontaneous warmth of the Eid ceasefire in June, when Taliban fighters had entered cities and embraced security forces, was thought to have rattled Taliban leaders and made them cautious of a second truce.

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