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Afghan Envoy Confident Taliban Will Participate In Peace Talks

Alleged former Taliban fighters carry their weapons before handing them over as part of a government peace and reconciliation process at a ceremony in Jalalabad on February 24.

Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal, the Afghan envoy to Pakistan, says the Afghan Taliban are likely to participate in peace negotiations with his government in the near future.

"I am confident we will soon be talking to the Taliban and other opposition groups," he told Radio Free Afghanistan. "Soon we will kick off negotiations toward an agreement for peace."

Zakhilwal, who also serves as the Afghan president's special representative to Pakistan, represented Kabul in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, which recently agreed on a road map toward peace in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States are part of the forum. During its most recent meeting on February 23, the group expressed "strong support" for direct talks between Kabul and the Taliban, which are expected to begin in Islamabad this week.

Zakilwal is confident that contrary to popular opinion, the Taliban are interested in negotiating a peaceful settlement to end the decades-old war in Afghanistan. "The Taliban support and want peace, but there are issues."

He refused to elaborate on what such issues might be.

The Taliban, however, have not confirmed their participation in the proposed talks. Their office in Qatar, tasked with all political maneuvers of the secretive organization, insists the preconditions for joining direct talks with Afghanistan remain.

Mohammad Naim, the official spokesman for the Taliban's political office in Qatar, told Radio Free Afghanistan last week that the Taliban continue to insist that all foreign troops in the U.S.-led coalition must leave Afghanistan before they will join direct peace talks with the government in Kabul.

He added that the Taliban's Qatar office was "unaware of plans for talks" and that it had not changed its preconditions for joining the peace process, which he had announced at the Pugwash research center in Doha on January 23.

In addition to the withdrawal of all foreign troops in the U.S.-led coalition from Afghanistan, these preconditions include official recognition of the Taliban's political office in Qatar, the removal of Taliban leaders from a United Nations terrorist blacklist, a halt to the "arrest and elimination" of Taliban fighters, and the release of Taliban inmates from prisons. Naim demanded that Kabul must also bring to an end what he described as "anti-Taliban propaganda."

Zakhilwal, however, seemed optimistic that the conditions for Taliban participation are ripe. "The environment they [the Taliban] wanted in order to participate is right, and I believe they will take take part in peace negotiations."

He rejected reports that Pakistan has been tasked with bringing 10 Taliban representatives to the negotiations. "It is not for us to decide who will represent the Taliban, but we would like to see credible representatives," he said.

Zakhilwal said Kabul had requested that Islamabad host the first meeting with the Taliban. He says participants will be free to choose the venue for future rounds of negotiations.

Last July, Islamabad brokered the first-ever direct talks between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban. But the process failed to take off amid a Taliban leadership struggle following an announcement by the insurgents that their founding leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had died in 2013.