Taliban refuses to speak with Afghan government negotiation team

The Taliban refused to begin talks with the Afghan government’s new negotiating team on Saturday, in a setback to the US-brokered peace process for one of the world’s longest-running conflicts.

Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the militants could not talk to the 21-member team named on Thursday as it had not been constituted taking all parties into account. The team is headed by Masoom Stanekzai, an ex-security chief and supporter of president Ashraf Ghani, and includes politicians, former officials and representatives of civil society. Five members are women.

“In order to reach true and lasting peace, the aforementioned team must be agreed upon by all effective Afghan sides so that it can represent all sides,” said Mujahid.

The United States, which ousted the Taliban from power in 2001, signed a troop withdrawal deal with the group in February. But progress on moving to talks between the militants and the Afghan government has been delayed by a feud between Afghan politicians, and disagreement between the Taliban and the government over prisoner releases and a possible ceasefire.

The spokeswoman for the Afghan ministry of peace affairs, Najia Anwari, said the Taliban’s stance was unjustified, as the negotiating team had been appointed after wide consultations among Afghan society.

Ghani’s political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, has not confirmed whether he will support the delegation, which is potentially important given his camp’s strong influence in the north and west. Abdullah’s spokesman, Fraidoon Khwazoon, said that although the announced list was not final and there were “considerations that needed to be addressed”, it should not be rejected outright. “All sides including the Taliban should try not to lose the available opportunity for peace, by make illogical excuses. The Taliban should not lose the current opportunity.”

The US embassy did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Saturday. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo failed to mediate between Abdullah and Ghana to create an “inclusive” government during a visit to Kabul on Monday, and announced a $1bn cut in US aid to Afghanistan, which he said could be reversed.