Taliban-Afghan government agreement marred by document's wording


KABUL/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A breakthrough on an initial agreement reached between Taliban and government negotiators has been held up at the last minute after the insurgent group balked at the document's preamble because it mentioned the Afghan government by name.

Teams representing the Taliban and the Afghan government have been negotiating in the Qatari capital since September to reach a consensus on the modalities of peace talks, moving forward to help end decades of war in Afghanistan.

"The negotiating teams have so far agreed on all 21 articles that provide guiding principles for the negotiations," Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said in a statement on Monday. "At this time, they continue to debate the preamble, in which some issues need further clarification".

Government and diplomatic sources told Reuters that when it came to signing the document in November, which was to include references to the "Islamic Republic of Afghanistan" - the official name of the Afghan government, - the Taliban backed off.

The Taliban refuse to refer to the Afghan negotiating team as representatives of the Afghan government, as they contest the legitimacy of Ghani's election.

"(The government and Taliban) prepared to sign the agreement," a diplomat in Kabul familiar with process told Reuters, adding that the chief Afghan government negotiator was to sign the agreement as "chief negotiator for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan".

"The Taliban refused to accept that," the diplomat said.

The Taliban did not immediately respond to request for comment on the specific incident but had earlier told Reuters that their stance was to negotiate with Afghans broadly and would not recognise them as negotiators representing the government.

"We are ready to take the talks forward with the current team as Afghans; we don't know them as a government team," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters on Monday.

Mujahid said the Taliban's stance, from day one, was that they did not recognise the government.

Another diplomatic source said there had been ongoing discord over the term "republic" and the Taliban's reference to itself as an "Islamic Emirate," which underscored the differences between the warring sides.

"The differences over the words "republic" and "emirate" triggered a deep suspicion between the negotiators," he said. "The problem is complex as it leads to (implications over) the vision and aspiration of a country and how it wants to projected and perceived."

The Afghan government side took the Taliban's reservations to Ghani who said he will not agree to such a demand, according to two well-placed government sources.

One source said the Taliban's insistence was based on its desire to have Ghani's elected government replaced with a caretaker administration once the peace process begins.

"The Taliban from day one have tried to delegitimise the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and are pushing a vague title of "Intra-Afghan" (talks) to undermine the legitimacy of the government," the source said.

The U.S.-Taliban agreement, signed in February, does not mention the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan by name either and envisages the formation of a "new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government as determined by the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations".

It also refers to the peace talks as "Intra-Afghan" talks.

One Afghan government source said the Afghan delegation will not walk away from talks, but feared the consequences of the new standoff would be "bitter for both sides," including a further escalation of violence on the ground in Afghanistan.

(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi and Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul, Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad and Rupam Jain in Mumbai; Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Pakistan; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

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