Afghan President Ashraf Ghani attends a meeting in Kabul. File photo
The Afghan government has finalised a 21-member team — including five women — who will negotiate with the Taliban in upcoming talks aimed at ending Afghanistan's 18-year-old conflict, officials said on Friday.
The move is a crucial step in bringing the warring parties to the table and getting a floundering, US-led peace process back on track.
Under a deal signed by the US and the Taliban last month, the insurgents agreed to commit to starting talks with the Afghan government and discuss a possible ceasefire.
Up until now, the Taliban has refused to meet with the administration of President Ashraf Ghani, calling him an American stooge.
In return for starting talks and other commitments, the US and foreign partner forces will withdraw from Afghanistan over the next 14 months.
The negotiating team was supposed to be unveiled weeks ago, with the "intra-Afghan" talks with the Taliban meant to get underway on March 10 in Oslo.
But Kabul has been gripped by a fresh political crisis, with Ghani's legitimacy being challenged by his rival Abdullah Abdullah, who has also proclaimed himself president.
The United States, which has slashed aid to the Afghan government over its failure to end infighting, hailed the progress in naming an "inclusive" negotiating team.
The delegation "reflects the true tapestry of the nation and the instrumental role of women," said Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief US negotiator.
"This consensus is a meaningful step that moves the parties significantly closer to intra-Afghan negotiations," he wrote on Twitter.
A fresh round of talks between the US and the Taliban is to begin in Qatar, just days after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington is hoping for an Afghan peace agreement before Sept.1.
President Donald Trump halted talks with the group, aimed at striking a deal for US and other foreign troops to withdraw in exchange for Taliban security guarantees, after it carried out a bomb attack in Kabul that killed 12 people, including a US soldier.
The Taliban met US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in the Pakistan capital for the first time since President Donald Trump declared a seemingly imminent peace deal to end Afghanistan's 18-year war 'dead' a month ago, a Taliban official said early on Saturday.
Ghani said the message of the five-day gathering was clear: “Afghans want peace” and offered a ceasefire, though he stressed it would not be unilateral. In the statement on Friday, the Taliban rejected a ceasefire, saying attacks will continue during Ramadan but said “fighters are very careful of civilians during any operation.”
The SPEA said if parents are reluctant to send kids to the schools in the first phase of reopening, they can choose the distance learning option.
The ministry announced one death due to COVID-19 complications, bringing the total number of deaths in the country to 358.
The statement comes as a big relief to Indians who were stranded due to the coronavirus pandemic.