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Squabble Over Venue Latest Hurdle In Taliban-U.S. Peace Talks

14 Jan 2019 Gandhara - RFE/RL

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

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

Qatar denied funding militants, but it 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 January 13 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 from Saudi Arabia to Qatar in a bid to fend off Riyadh's bid to include the Afghan government in the talks.

"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 tensions underscore what diplomats say is a lack of consensus among regional powers, 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 January 15.

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.

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