Taliban Reshuffles Leadership, Deadly Attacks Continue In Lead-Up To Intra-Afghan Negotiations

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Taliban Reshuffles Leadership, Deadly Attacks Continue In Lead-Up To Intra-Afghan Negotiations

At least eight soldiers were killed in a suicide attack in Maidan Wardak province on Monday

The Taliban have put the son of the movement’s founder in charge of their military wing and added several powerful figures to their negotiating team. The changes to the senior leadership come ahead of expected talks with Kabul aimed at ending decades of war in Afghanistan. However, there has been no reduction in the group’s deadly attacks against security forces, which they have pledged to continue until all their prisoners are released pursuant to an agreement with the US signed in February.

As a result of the leadership changes, 30-year-old Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob has been appointed to command a newly united military wing. Equally significant is the addition of four members of the insurgent group’s leadership council to the 20-member negotiating team, Taliban officials told The Associated Press.

The reshuffle, overseen by Taliban leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhunzada, is intended to tighten his control over the movement’s military and political arms, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the inner workings of the Taliban.

The newly strengthened negotiating team includes Abdul Hakeem, the Taliban’s chief justice and confidant of Akhunzada, as well as Maulvi Saqib, who was chief justice during the Taliban rule.

The leadership changes also sidelined senior Taliban leader Amir Khan Muttaqi, removing him from the negotiating committee. Seen as close to neighbouring Pakistan, his removal has been interpreted as an attempt to limit Pakistan’s influence and buttress their position with Kabul, which is deeply suspicious of Islamabad.

Analysts say the shake-up could be good news for negotiations with the Afghan political leadership, and a sign of how seriously the Taliban are taking this second step in an agreement with the US signed in February.

When the US signed the deal with the Taliban on 29 February, after more than a year and a half of negotiations, it was touted as Afghanistan’s best chance at peace in four decades of war. It was also seen as a road map for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, putting an end to the US’ longest war.

Last week, four-and-a-half months after the agreement was signed, chief U.S. negotiator and peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted that “a key milestone in the implementation of the US-Taliban agreement” had been reached as US troop numbers dropped to 8,600 from about 12,000 and five bases were closed in Afghanistan.

Even as Khalilzad criticised increased insurgent attacks on Afghan security forces, he said the Taliban had been true to their word not to attack US and NATO troops.

“No American has lost his/her life in Afghanistan to Taliban violence. Regional relations have improved.” LINK

The Taliban have stepped up their military activity against Afghan government forces since Yaqoob’s appointment in May, a sign the militants under his leadership may see gains on the battlefield as increasing their leverage in the forthcoming negotiations.

In recent weeks, hopes have been raised of a July start to negotiations but the Taliban and the Kabul government have become bogged down in the final release of prisoners, a prerequisite for the start of negotiations. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told the AP on Friday that the Taliban reject government efforts to substitute prisoners from the originally negotiated list for the exchange.

The Taliban have also accused the Afghan government of falsifying the identities and criminal records of the some of the prisoners in an attempt to justify the decision not to release them. A Qatar-based member of the Taliban, Mohammad Nabi Omari, said that pursuant to the US–Taliban peace deal, the dossiers of the remaining prisoners should be investigated. He also claimed that foreign interference affected the decision.

“Opposing the release of Taliban prisoners by some foreign countries is a clear interference into internal affairs of Afghanistan,” Mr. Omari said.

The militants have insisted on the release of all of the 5,000 prisoners as agreed in the peace deal signed between the US Special Envoy Zalamay Khalilzad and the Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in February.

The Afghan government said that it has freed over 4,000 Taliban prisoners but the remaining 592 inmates would not be released as they are accused of more serious crimes and would constitute a major security threat. Of around 800 Afghan security forces freed by the Taliban, the government said that 175 of them were civilians.

The Taliban reiterated that its atttacks against security forces will continue until all prisoners are released in a statement on Monday: “The completion of the prisoner exchange process is one of the most fundamental issues of this [negotiation] process on top of which an end must also be put to violations which have seen an uptick in recent days.” LINK

Meanwhile, serious disagreements continue to hamper the ability of the Afghan government to prepare for negotiations. President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah signed a political agreement in May, apparently ending the political crisis. The deal obliges the two to share the appointment of cabinet members, provincial governors and other powerful government posts.

But many aspects of the deal still have not been implemented The high council for reconciliation, which Abdullah is to lead, is in uncertainty, cabinet members have not been introduced to parliament, there are problems over the appointment of provincial governors, the state ministry for peace is yet to be integrated with the reconciliation council and Abdullah’s three deputies have not been identified. LINK

Last Friday President Ghani and Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah discussed the latest developments with US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, during which he called for urgent peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, however there has been no breakthrough in the stalemate.

Meanwhile, attacks by the Taliban have continued unabated. Reports indicate that early on Monday at least 13 Afghan security forces members were killed in two Taliban attacks in the northern province of Kunduz. The Taliban reportedly also sustained casualties.

In another attack, on Sunday, three Taliban militants were killed while an Afghan Local Police (ALP) member and a civilian were wounded during a clash at a checkpoint. Also on Sunday, two insurgents were killed and a police officer was wounded after the Taliban attacked a checkpoint in southern Helmand province.

On Saturday night, four Afghan police officers, including a district police chief, were killed in an IED explosion in eastern Paktika province. Also on Saturday, in southern Zabul province another police chief and a police officer were killed, three pro-government militiamen and three Taliban insurgents were killed in clashes at a checkpoint in Ghazni province, and three civilians were killed and at least eight others wounded in a Taliban rocket attack in Kapisa province. LINK

In a separate attack early on Monday, at least eight soldiers were killed and nine others wounded after a suicide bomber detonated a truck packed with explosives in Maidan Wardak province, defence ministry officials have confirmed.

A convey of the Afghan National Army (ANA) was the target, in which another nine members of the ANA were wounded, the ministry added.

The Taliban group has claimed responsibility for the attack. LINK

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