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Taliban, Afghanistan begin secret talks in Qatar

Taliban, Afghanistan begin secret talks in Qatar

Doha: The Taliban militant group and the Afghan government have resumed their secret talks in Qatar as the peace process started in 2013 broke down following the death of Taliban founder Mullah Omar's successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour.

According to senior sources within the group and the government, among those present at the meetings held in September and October was Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund, brother of Mullah Omar.

The two rounds of talks are the first known negotiations to have taken place since a Pakistan-brokered process broke down late in May following Mansour's death in a US drone strike in Pakistan, the Guardian reported on Tuesday.

Doha has been a centre for Taliban diplomacy since the movement was granted permission to set up an office in the Qatari capital in 2013. Although that initiative became one of the many attempts to start a peace process, it ultimately came to nothing.

Mullah Omar's son, Mohammad Yaqoob, is expected to soon join the Doha group, a Taliban source said.

No Pakistani official took part in either the October or September meetings, according to a Taliban member.

He said Islamabad has lost its influence over a movement it has been associated with since 1990s.

But according to the Taliban official, a senior US diplomat was present in the Qatar meetings.

The US embassy in Afghanistan declined to comment on the claim.

The Taliban official said the first meeting in early September "went positively and was held in a trouble-free atmosphere" in which Akhund sat face to face with Mohammed Masoom Stanekzai, Afghanistan's intelligence chief.

A second meeting took place in early October, despite continued fighting between government and insurgent forces.

Recent weeks have seen the Taliban overrun Kunduz, a provincial capital, for the second time and threaten Lashkar Gah in Helmand.

Despite the violence, Kabul remains committed to trying to finding a political solution to the conflict.

Late last month it finalised a peace deal with Islamist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who had fought against the US-backed regime for more than a decade.

"Taliban believes the Afghan issue is a dispute with both the US and Afghan governments," he said. "If these three sides can hold preliminary meetings, it could create a strong base for further positive developments."

He said Mullah Akhund was "specially dispatched by the Taliban leadership council" to underline the importance it attaches to the talks.

Previous attempt to find a political end to the conflict have all failed.

A western security official said the recent onslaught against provincial capitals was a "strong indication that the insurgents want to pursue a military strategy regardless of the politics".

"But we keep hearing hints and indications that various figures in the Taliban leadership want to talk as well," he said.

The last known meeting between the two sides took place in the Pakistani hill resort of Murree in July last year, where US and Pakistani officials were also present.

A Pakistan-led "quadrilateral" process, involving Afghanistan, the US and China that was intended to presage fresh talks has also petered out.

A close aide of Ghani said both the Taliban and the government have become deeply disillusioned with Pakistan.

"Pakistan was double dealing and insincere with the Afghan government," he said. "We no longer think we need Pakistan and the Taliban think the same thing."

Ghani had courted Islamabad in the hope it would use its influence to both force the Taliban to join peace talks and curtail its attacks, but violence only increased.

A western official in Kabul said a spate of arrests by Pakistani security forces of senior Taliban officials suggests Islamabad's intelligence agencies are trying to "re-establish control over the process".

The arrests have targeted officials chaffing under the leadership of the movement's latest chief, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, who succeeded Mansour in May.

The most recent arrest came on October 8 when Mullah Ahmadullah Nani was seized in Quetta, a city in south-west Pakistan.

"The Taliban leaders recently arrested are primarily supporters of Mullah Mansour," said the close aide of Ghani. "They suspect Pakistan had a hand in Mansour's killing and therefore distrust it.

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