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Taliban name negotiating team before new talks with US

The Taliban has named a 14-member team of negotiators, including five former Guantanamo Bay inmates and a high-profile jailed leader, for the second round of talks with the United States.

With the move announced on Tuesday, the group has pushed for the release of Anas Haqqani, younger brother of the leader of the powerful Taliban faction, Haqqani network. He is currently held in a jail in Afghanistan‘s capital, Kabul.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said Haqqani “should be released to start work on the negotiating team”. He said Haqqani “was a student at the time of his arrest and was not involved in any activity for which he should be arrested”. 

The Taliban negotiating team has been announced in advance of talks this month with US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been meeting with the armed group in Qatar’s capital Doha to try to end America’s longest war.

Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai will head the team, which includes five former inmates of the US prison at Guantanamo Bay who were released in 2014 in exchange for US Sergeant. Bowe Bergdahl, captured by the Taliban in 2009 after wandering off his base.

The Taliban have been demanding Haqqani’s release since talks to end the Afghan war began last year.

The Haqqani network has not been openly involved in talks with the US envoy, except to send three representatives to a meeting in the United Arab Emirates in December.

That meeting reportedly touched on the issue of prisoners, including Anas Haqqani and two professors from the American University in Kabul – US citizen Kevin King and Timothy Weeks, an Australian – who are believed to be held by the Haqqani network.

The professors were abducted in 2016 from Kabul. A video released more than a year ago indicated King was in poor health.

The Taliban have so far refused to talk to the US-backed government in Kabul, instead, they held meetings in Moscow earlier this month with prominent Afghan figures, including former President Hamid Karzai.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has complained bitterly about being sidelined, and it is not yet clear if his government would be willing to release Haqqani without being granted a larger role in the peace process.

On Monday, the US envoy met NATO and European Union officials in Brussels, and later tweeted that he was “encouraged by their strong endorsement on the progress we’ve made on a peace process”.

He said the sides are aiming to reach a peace deal “worthy of the sacrifices made over decades of war,” and not a withdrawal agreement.

This was Khalilzad’s first stop on a three-week mission that will also take him to Germany, Turkey, Qatar, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

US President Donald Trump has indicated his frustration with the war in Afghanistan and has said he wants to bring the US troops home.

Earlier, there were reports that the US would withdraw half of its roughly 14,000 soldiers by the summer this year. Another 8,000 NATO and allied troops are also stationed in Afghanistan.

The US and NATO troops are mostly advising and training, although when requested they assist Afghan forces in battles with the Taliban, who carry out near-daily assaults on Afghan soldiers and police.

More than 17 years after their overthrow, the Taliban control, influence or hold sway over nearly half of the country.