KABUL – The Afghan Taliban announced on Tuesday a 14-member team of negotiators to continue peace talks with the United States, consisting of some new faces, including a jailed leader of the Haqqani Network.
In a statement, the Taliban said “talks with the American sides (will) continue” and given “the importance of the issue,” its chief Hibatullah Akhundzada asked his deputy Mullah Baradar to appoint a new team of negotiators.
Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai, who was the head of Taliban’s political office in Qatar and has overseen a series of meetings with the US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, will continue leading the negotiations with American diplomats along with another 13 members.
Among the new appointees is Anas Haqqani, a son of Haqqani Network founder Jalaluddin Haqqani, who died years ago due to unknown illness although his death was reported only last year.
The senior Haqqani was believed to have masterminded some of the deadliest attacks targeting US and Afghan security forces and their interests in the last 17 years of war.
The Haqqani Network has pledged allegiance to the Taliban and is known to be coordinating its militant activities with the group.
Anas, a lesser-known figure in the Network now headed by his older brother Sirajuddin, was arrested in 2014 and remains in prison.
He was accused of directing the militant group’s propaganda on social media and playing a crucial role in strategic decision-making and fundraising.
The Taliban on Tuesday renewed its demand for Anas’ release to enable him be part of the team for talks.
“Anas Haqqani has been appointed as a member of the negotiating team, but is still in prison. As he was a student (when he was arrested) and did not do any activity to lead to his imprisonment, therefore he should be released to start his new role as member of negotiating team,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told EFE.
The names of four former Guantanamo Bay inmates are also on the list.
Previously, a 10-member Taliban team was handling the negotiations with the US for ending the Afghan conflict.
The new team was formed a day after Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan made an unannounced tip to Afghanistan and denied that he had received orders from President Donald Trump to reduce its US military presence in the war-torn country.
The pull-out of foreign troops from Afghanistan is one of the Taliban’s key demands in peace negotiations with US officials.
The two sides have held multiple rounds of talks in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar amid opposition by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government, which insists on having a central role in the peace talks.
The Taliban has refused to engage with the government in Kabul.