Afghans Name Council to Ease Logjam on Talks With Taliban

In a sign that a logjam in Afghanistan over entering peace talks with the Taliban could be easing, the Afghan government announced Sunday that it had named a council of senior political leaders who will appoint negotiators, create their mandate for talks and oversee their work.

The formation of the council — led by President Ashraf Ghani and composed of both current and former senior government officials and leaders of political parties and opposition groups — comes after months of bitter disagreements over the next steps for peace talks with the Taliban.

So far, negotiations have occurred only between the insurgents and American diplomats, without the Afghan government, an impasse that American officials have struggled to break.

The two sides are near an agreement on the withdrawal of American troops and on a Taliban pledge that Afghan soil not be used by terrorist groups to attack the United States and its allies, as Al Qaeda did in September 2001. But the United States has insisted that nothing can be finalized until the Taliban and the Afghans figure out the country’s political future.

The Taliban have refused to meet directly with representatives of the Afghan government, calling it a puppet of the United States. The Afghan government has insisted on nothing less than direct negotiations, criticizing any move by political groups to engage with the Taliban as giving the insurgents unwarranted legitimacy.

Mr. Ghani, in opening the first meeting of the new council, expressed happiness on Sunday and thanked political leaders for creating a unified front under the government’s umbrella.

“With complete unity for the sake of a better future for our country, we will make decisions about the aims of this process and the makeup of the negotiating team,” Mr. Ghani said.

The progress was welcomed by Zalmay Khalilzad, the American Special envoy leading the peace efforts. Mr. Khalilzad spent much of the past week in Kabul trying to urge the Afghan government to introduce an inclusive negotiating team.

“Ambassador Khalilzad was pleased to see the Afghans with whom he met, inside and outside government, coming together to put peace first,” the United States Embassy in Kabul, said in a statement announcing his departure. “Ambassador Khalilzad underscored the imperative of reducing violence across Afghanistan in the coming weeks and explored ways to build broader regional support for the current effort to realize the Afghan people’s yearning for peace.”

After the new council met, officials expressed their willingness to be flexible to build trust and pave the way for direct negotiations.

Mohammed Umer Daudzai, a member of the council, said an informal meeting with the Taliban in Qatar, seen as an icebreaker, would go ahead. That meeting, set for mid-April and expected to be attended by more than a hundred Afghans from various parts of society, is intended as a trust-building measure.

“It was decided in today’s meeting that we will participate in the meeting in Qatar as a joint delegation,” Mr. Daudzai said. “A big delegation will go to Qatar to exchange views with the other side, which are the Taliban, but they will not negotiate. Negotiation is the next step.”

Easing Mr. Ghani’s concerns is the fact that since he leads the council overseeing the talks, his officials will be on the negotiating team when direct talks with the Taliban do begin. Government representatives are also likely to attend the large Qatar meeting.

The Taliban, in a statement soon after Mr. Daudzai’s comments, made clear that they were still sensitive about talking to the Afghan government. They said that if any officials were part of the delegation in Qatar, they would be attending in a personal capacity.

“No one will be participating as representatives of the Kabul administration,” Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said in the statement.

Although political parties and lawmakers welcomed the progress, many cautioned that it was still fragile, and said Mr. Ghani’s office still had many differences with the parties on major issues, including the size and makeup of the negotiating team.

A leaked initial list of the team published by local news media also raised concerns about just how seriously the Afghan government and political elite were taking the participation of women. Only two women were on a proposed list of 22 negotiators.

“Today’s meeting in the palace could be a good start for building of national consensus on peace — at least now there is a start for decisions on how to go ahead with peace talks,” said Mohammad Natiqi, a leader of the Wahdat-e-Islami Party. “But there are still big differences between political parties and the presidential palace.”

Mohammad Nazeer Ahmadzai, a member of Parliament, said the council created a platform to bridge rifts that benefit the Taliban. He pointed to a meeting in Moscow in February where the Afghan political elite went in large numbers to meet with the insurgents despite strong disagreement from the government.

“If the meeting in Qatar ends up similar to the meeting in Moscow, it will damage the people’s trust in the peace process, and it will show the government weaker and more marginalized,” he said.