Afghanistan: a new Delegation formed to negotiate with the Taliban.

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The Afghan government announced the selection of a 21-member delegation to negotiate with the Taliban in a tentative indication of progress in the US broken peace agreement. The negotiation delegation announced by the State for Peace Ministry is headed by Masum Estankzi, the former head of the National Security Department who is a supporter of President Ashraf Ghani with politicians, former officials and civil society representatives, the team includes five women too.

It was not yet clear whether Abdullah Abdullah, President Ghani’s rival, would agree to the team that was chosen, something diplomats said was crucial in view of the influence of his strong camp in most of the north and west of the country.

After the team selection, the next step will be the meeting to hold talks with the Taliban as part of a process aimed at ending the longest-running US war and peace in Afghanistan.

A spokesman for Abdullah said he could neither confirm nor deny whether Abdullah would support the team.

Two sources, one of whom is a diplomat in Kabul familiar with the matter and the other a member of Abdullah’s team and speaking on condition of anonymity, said negotiations are advancing and that Abdullah is likely to support the delegation.

The United States struck a deal with the Taliban on February to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, but progress has not been made in negotiations between the movement and the Afghan government, partly because of the political dispute between Ghani and Abdullah, who both insist he is the country’s legitimate president after the September elections.

The mediation of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo between them failed to form a government that includes all parties during a one-day visit to Kabul on Monday and announced a one billion dollar reduction in US aid to Afghanistan. But he indicated that this decision could be reversed.

The Corona Virus pandemic, which is currently sweeping the world, poses an additional challenge to the peace process in Afghanistan, and US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said it has created a need to accelerate peace.

The Taliban demanded the unconditional release of five thousand prisoners before starting any talks with the government. Ghani responded by offering to release 1,500 prisoners, and has since said that he will release 100 prisoners at the end of March due to humanitarian concerns caused by the Coronavirus.

This arrangement was reached in talks held via Skype between Taliban officials in Doha and government officials in Kabul due to travel restrictions. Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said 15 Taliban officials would travel soon to Kabul to verify the list of prisoners to be released.

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