By Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Pentagon said on Thursday that it had asked Congress for the authority to help fund lodging and transportation for Taliban members who were interested in negotiating local ceasefires with the Afghan government, as the Washington seeks an end to the more than 17-year-old war.
Last year, the Taliban observed an Afghan government ceasefire over the three-day Eid al-Fitr festival, leading to unprecedented scenes of government soldiers and militants embracing on front lines, and raising hopes for talks.
Since then however, fighting between the Taliban and U.S-backed Afghan government has intensified, even as talks between Washington and the militant group have continued.
“In cases where lodging and transportation would be required to facilitate the participation of all required parties to negotiate a local peace deal, the funds could be used for the purpose,” Pentagon spokeswoman Commander Rebecca Rebarich said.
She said the Pentagon was seeking “to lay the groundwork in anticipation of opportunities to facilitate talks with the Afghan government to find a way to end the war.” She said until now no funds had been used and the Pentagon did not provide further details of possible funding.
A bill passed this week by the House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense barred the U.S. government from using money to pay for the expenses of Taliban members taking part in the peace talks with the United States, unless the talks included members of the Afghan government or did not restrict the participation of women.
The bill has still not passed the full House Appropriations Committee and it is unclear whether lawmaker’s would approve the Pentagon’s request.
So far, Afghan government officials have been sidelined from talks between Washington and the Taliban.
Rebarich said that the Defense Department was not reimbursing local insurgent groups taking part in the talks.
“The United States also supports local peace initiatives between the Afghan government and insurgent groups looking to cease hostilities against the Afghan Government and coalition forces,” she said.
Rebarich added that the request for this authority was made by the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan following the June 2018 ceasefire.
U.S. and Taliban negotiators wrapped up their sixth round of peace talks on Thursday with “some progress” made on a draft agreement for when foreign troops might withdraw from Afghanistan.
The Afghan government has expressed frustration about not being included in talks with the Taliban and the limited information Kabul is being provided by Washington.
“The government does not feel that they have been briefed enough,” Roya Rahmani, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, told reporters in Washington this week.
“If a peace is to be negotiated and to be durable, it cannot keep on going on without the presence of Afghan people,” Rahmani said.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali. Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Alistair Bell)