US opens first round of resurrected peace talks with Taliban

KABUL — U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad on Saturday held the first official talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban since President Donald Trump declared a near-certain peace deal with the insurgents dead in September.

The talks will initially focus on getting a Taliban promise to reduce violence, with a permanent cease-fire being the eventual goal, said a U.S. statement. Khalilzad is also trying to lay the groundwork for negotiations between Afghans on both sides of the protracted conflict.

Sitting with the Taliban at the negotiating table was Anas Haqqani, one of three senior Taliban freed last month in exchange for kidnapped American University of Afghanistan professors — American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, Taliban’s political office spokesman Suhail Shaheen tweeted.

Haqqani is the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban’s deputy and the head of the much feared Haqqani network, a U.S. declared terrorist organization.

Tweeting that talks will resume on Sunday, Shaheen also said “we discussed matters related to the signing of the agreement,”without elaborating.

The meetings being held in the Middle Eastern State of Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office, follow several days of talks in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, where Khalilzad met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

The Taliban have so far refused direct talks with Ghani, calling him a U.S. puppet.

Ghani leads the Afghan government with Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah in a power-sharing agreement brokered by the United States after the presidential elections in 2014 were so deeply mired in corruption that a clear winner could not be determined.

To head off a conflict Washington stepped in and forced the two leading candidates — Ghani and Abdullah — to share power in a so-called Unity Government that has been largely paralyzed because of the relentless bickering between the two leaders.

The Afghan government is now embroiled in a fresh elections standoff. Presidential polls on Sept. 28 again ended in accusations of misconduct, with no results yet announced.

Repeat leading contender Abdullah has challenged the recounting of several hundred thousand ballots, accusing his opponent Ghani of trying to manipulate the tally.

Meanwhile, Khalilzad’s return to his peace mission followed Trump’s surprise Thanksgiving Day visit to Afghanistan in which he said talks with the Taliban were back on.

While Khalilzad is talking to the Taliban about reducing violence, the U.S. military in its daily report said overnight on Saturday U.S. airstrikes killed 37 Taliban and operations by the Afghan National Security Forces killed another 22 of the militants.

The insurgents have continued to carry put near daily strikes against military outposts throughout the country. They now hold sway over nearly half of Afghanistan.

Trump has expressed frustration with America’s longest war repeatedly saying he wants to bring the estimated 12,000 U.S. soldiers home and calling on Afghanistan’s own police and military to step up. The Afghan government has also been criticized for its relentless corruption.

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