Squabble over venue latest hurdle in Taliban-U.S. peace talks

KABUL (Reuters) - Efforts to negotiate a peace deal to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan, already beset by disagreement about the agenda, are facing a new hurdle over the venue for the talks.

FILE PHOTO: Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations, listens to speakers during a panel discussion on Afghanistan at the Conservative Political Action conference (CPAC) in Washington, February 12, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

Last week, Taliban leaders called off a fourth round of talks with U.S. officials in the Arab Gulf state of Qatar due to an “agenda disagreement”, and refused to allow “puppet” Afghan government officials to join.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, is holding talks with regional powers and was expected to meet the Taliban in the coming days.

But diplomatic sources said differences over the venue had caused a delay.

“Saudi Arabia and the UAE (United Arab Emirates), have made it clear that they will not participate in the peace talks if the meeting takes place in Qatar. But the Taliban insists on holding them in Qatar,” said a Kabul-based diplomat whose country shares a border with Afghanistan.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab nations severed ties with Qatar in 2017, alleging that Doha funded militants and had close ties to Iran.

Qatar denied funding militants, but restored diplomatic relations with Iran after the crisis with its neighbors.

Washington has pushed the Gulf nations to end their dispute at a time when their support is crucial in talks with the Taliban.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who stopped in Doha on Sunday during a Middle East tour, said the rift between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors had gone on for too long.

The Taliban this month pushed to shift the venue for the talks from Saudi Arabia to Qatar in a bid to fend off Riyadh’s bid to include the Afghan government in them.

“Differences between Saudi Arabia and Qatar have in fact damaged our peace process. The Saudis unnecessarily put pressure on us to announce a ceasefire which even the U.S. delegation didn’t pursue,” a Taliban leader, who declined to be named, told Reuters.

The Saudi and UAE embassies in Kabul declined to comment.

The Afghan government said on Monday that attempts to introduce bilateral rivalries were an added complication for the peace process.

“Unfortunately, the kind of rivalry which has started between the regional countries about the peace process has proved harmful to Afghanistan,” Mujiburrahman Rahimi, a spokesman for Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah was quoted as saying by Tolo News, Afghanistan’s largest private broadcaster.

The tensions underscore what diplomats say is a lack of consensus among powers in the region, whose support is crucial for long-term peace in Afghanistan.

“There is a whole load of posturing. They are not monolithic,” a Western diplomat in Kabul said of Afghanistan’s neighbors.

A senior Iranian diplomat said holding the peace talks in Saudi Arabia would be unacceptable to Tehran.

“The U.S. officials want the venue to be in Saudi Arabia, but we are not comfortable,” he said.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid declined to confirm the date or location of the next meeting, though a senior Taliban source told Reuters it could take place on Tuesday.

The Taliban regards the United States as its main adversary in the Afghan war and views direct talks with Washington as a legitimate effort to seek the withdrawal of foreign troops before engaging with the Afghan government.

“Even though there are a number of discussions, there’s nothing particularly formal or structured or substantive to them,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia specialist at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

“It’s very easy to get sidetracked, and it’s easy for the Taliban to back out when it feels any one discussion doesn’t serve its interests,” he said.

Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul, Editing by Darren Schuettler and Catherine Evans