Global Economy

Trump speaks to Taliban leader as prisoner feud threatens Afghan peace plan

KABUL/WASHINGTON: U.S. President Donald Trump spoke by telephone with chief Taliban negotiator Mullah Baradar Akhund on Tuesday, the first known direct communication between a U.S. leader and a top Taliban official, as a dispute over a prisoner release threatened a U.S.-led effort to bring peace to Afghanistan.

The telephone call, first announced on Twitter by a Taliban spokesman and then confirmed by Trump, came three days after Baradar and U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad signed an agreement for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

That deal, an important step toward ending America’s longest war, could help boost Trump’s bid for a second term in the November election.

It calls for a phased withdrawal of U.S.-led international troops and the start on March 10 of talks between the Taliban and an Afghan delegation that would include government officials on a political settlement to decades of conflict.

But the peace effort quickly hit an obstacle, with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani refusing to implement a provision of the accord – to which his government was not a party – for the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners, saying the issue should be negotiated. The Taliban, however, demanded about 5,000 prisoners be freed before they will begin the peace talks.

In a statement on the Trump-Baradar conversation, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid indicated that Baradar had given no ground on the insurgents’ demand.

“Baradar said to Trump,’It is the inherent right of the Afghans that all the points of this agreement are implemented as soon as possible so that peace may come to Afghanistan,'” said Mujahid.

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During the 35-minute discussion, he said, Trump told Baradar that he would soon have U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speak to Ghani “so that the barriers against the inter-Afghan talks get removed.”

Speaking with reporters as he left the White House, Trump gave few details of the discussion. “They’re dealing with Afghanistan but we’ll see what happens. We had actually a very good talk with the leader of the Taliban,” he said. (Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in Kabul and Jeff Mason in Washington Writing by Jonathan Landay Editing by Mary Milliken/Mark Heinrich)


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