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Taliban Chief Inducts Trusted Aides for Intra-Afghan Peace Talks

“Reshuffling is a routine process within the organization; nothing is new or dramatic,” Doha-based Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen says

[Islamabad] Afghan Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada has added his most trusted colleagues to his movement’s 20-member negotiating team ahead of intra-Afghan talks.

The newly appointed negotiators, all members of the Taliban’s leadership council, will join the political team in Doha, Qatar, in the next few days.

Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi, until now a senior official at the Taliban political office in Doha, has reportedly been taken off the team. Muttaqi was education minister under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Suhail Shaheen, a Doha-based Taliban spokesperson, told The Media Line, “Reshuffling is a routine process within the organization; nothing is new or dramatic.”

Responding to a Media Line question, he claimed, “The entire responsibility for the delay in intra-Afghan peace talks is on the shoulders of the Kabul administration.

“They [the Afghan government] are deliberately delaying the release of our prisoners as was decided in the [conditional] Doha peace agreement [reached between the Taliban and the US in February],” Shaheen added. “The puppet Kabul administration is still trying to sabotage the peace process, just to prolong its grip on power.

“Sometimes they blame the Taliban for [supposedly] taking bounties from Russia [for killing American and allied soldiers in Afghanistan] and sometimes they blame us for conducting operations with the help of al-Qaida and ISIS,” he continued. “This baseless propaganda never prevails and we are committed to abiding by the peace agreement signed in Doha,” he said.

Shaheen further said, “For the continuation of the peace and stability process in the country, our political team, which was headed by Sheikh Shahab ud Din Dilawar, held a video conference with the Afghan diaspora; thousands of Afghans viewed it. Our team briefed them about the future Islamic system in the country, the release of prisoners, intra-Afghan negotiations, women’s rights and other important topics.”

Qazi Noor Ul Amin Balkhi, a senior official of a pro-Taliban “media cell,” told The Media Line that “the Taliban’s Supreme Leader Mullah Hibatullah has appointed [to the negotiating team] Sheikh Abdul Hakeem Ishaqzai, the Taliban’s chief justice; Sheikh Noor Muhammad Saqib, who was chief justice during the Taliban’s rule; Mullah Abdul Kabeer Zadran, former governor of Nangarhar [Province]; and Mullah Shireen Noorzai, a competent military commander who had also served as the security chief of Taliban founder Mullah Omar.

“The Taliban’s supreme council has strict rules against disclosing or discussing such matters in public; therefore the Taliban did not make it [the appointments] public,” he added.

Ishaqzai is considered the most influential religious and spiritual leader among the Taliban fighters and Pashtun tribes on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

There is currently a surge in Taliban attacks on Afghan security forces as the Islamists and the Kabul government prepare for intra-Afghan peace talks.

At least 11 intelligence officials were killed on July 13, when an explosives-laden car targeted the headquarters of the National Directorate of Security, the country’s main intelligence agency, in Samangan Province. The attack also left 58 troops critically wounded. The Taliban claimed responsibility.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghanistan, condemned the attack and said in a tweet that it would “strengthen opponents of the Afghan peace process.”

“No American has lost his/her life in Afghanistan to Taliban violence [since the agreement was reached in February],” Khalilzad also tweeted.

Syed Noor Agha, a Kabul-based security analyst, told The Media Line, “It is true that with the induction of his most trusted allies to the dialogue team, the Taliban’s supreme leader has further tightened his control over the political affairs of the organization. Anyhow, the Doha-based Taliban political team always seeks a final decision from their supreme leader, Mullah Hibatullah.

“However, some insiders say that the fundamental purpose behind the new appointments is to strengthen the Doha-based political team’s authority, and now they will be asked to take decisions independently, without the approval of the Taliban’s Central Consultative Council,” he continued.

Agha further said that “the killing of two lawyers who were working to facilitate the prisoner swap [as called for in the US-Taliban agreement] by unknown gunmen clearly shows that some anti-peace elements are trying to destroy the peace process.”

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center in Washington, told The Media Line, “These new negotiators are a good thing and an encouraging sign for talks. It suggests that the Taliban’s top leadership wants to ensure that its most trusted allies are influencing the negotiations, whenever they do start.

“This indicates a level of support and preparedness on the part of the Taliban leadership in the context of the intra-Afghan dialogue,” he said.

“To be sure, many obstacles remain for these talks, but the fact that the Taliban side is trying to get – from its perspective − the most trusted and effective negotiators at the table is a good thing,” Kugelman said.

These new negotiators are a good thing and an encouraging sign for talks. It suggests that the Taliban’s top leadership wants to ensure that its most trusted allies are influencing the negotiations, whenever they do start.

Adeeb Safvi, a Karachi-based regional defense analyst, told The Media Line, “The team change will not make much of a real difference, keeping in mind the Taliban’s identity as an Islamic movement which will never accept becoming part of a so-called democratic setup as second fiddle to [Afghan] President Ashraf Ghani.

“The Taliban leadership is sincere in its commitment to the cause, and cannot betray the support of the movement’s foot soldiers, which has been its main impetus,” he added.

“The Taliban’s stance on the signed agenda will not be affected by a change in the team; rather it [the stance] remains fixed, as enshrined in the principles of governance of the Islamic state,” Safvi said. “We must first understand who favors peace and who doesn’t.

“India is indulging in a media war to blame all attacks on the Taliban, to scuttle the Doha agreement,” he added.

“It is understood that unless the Kabul administration releases all Taliban prisoners, the Taliban will never negotiate with Kabul,” Safvi said.

Meanwhile, Jawed Faisal, spokesperson of the Afghan National Security Council, said in a tweet that the “Afghan government has so far released 4,019 Taliban prisoners, while the Taliban has released barely half of the 1,000 Afghan National Security Forces hostages they agreed to release.”

Faisal added that “592 Taliban prisoners on the Taliban’s list of 5,000 prisoners to be released have committed serious crimes and are involved in various human rights violations.”