US Envoy in Kabul Negotiating Hostage Release: Sources

Zalmay Khalilzad was in Kabul on Thursday trying to barter a prisoner exchange

Washington's peace envoy was in the Afghan capital Kabul on Thursday trying to negotiate a prisoner exchange that would free two Western professors employed by the American University of Afghanistan held by the Taliban since 2016, officials said.

Zalmay Khalilzad is trying to barter a prisoner exchange involving American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks that could resuscitate peace efforts to end Afghanistan's 18-year war, America's longest, they said.

The officials, who are familiar with Khalilzad's efforts, spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

Among 80 others, the Taliban are demanding the release of Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of Sirajuddin, deputy head of the Taliban and leader of the Haqqani network, often considered the strongest of the Taliban fighting in Afghanistan. Anas Haqqani was arrested in Bahrain in 2014 and handed over to the Afghan government. He was sentenced to death.

The prisoner exchange discussions are deadlocked over demands that the Taliban agree to a cease-fire before any prisoners are exchanged, according to officials familiar with Khalilzad's discussions in Kabul.

Prisoner release has been a key pillar of the Taliban's year-long negotiations with Khalilzad, which ended in September after U.S. President Donald Trump declared a deal that seemed imminent "dead." Trump was reacting to a series of Taliban attacks that killed several people, including a U.S. soldier.

While Trump has expressed no interest in resuming talks with the Taliban, Khalilzad has been holding a series of meetings over the past three weeks across the region as well as in Afghanistan trying to breath life back into the peace process, which would include brokering a reduction in violence.

The Taliban, however, have steadfastly refused a cease-fire.

Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban's political office in the Middle Eastern state of Qatar, previously said the Taliban were ready to declare an immediate cease-fire against U.S. and NATO troops once the deal hammered out with Khalilzad was signed. He said the Taliban had also agreed to negotiate a cease-fire separately with Afghanistan's National Security Forces during intra-Afghan negotiations that were to begin 10 days after the signing.

Shaheen said the U.S. should sign the deal it negotiated and violence in Afghanistan will decrease.

Afghanistan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib told reporters earlier this week that Khalilzad's visit to Kabul last week was also to discuss Anas Haqqani.

At the same news conference, Mohib said the Afghan government wanted a one-month cease-fire before it would even talk to the Taliban. It would prove the Taliban leadership's ability to control its fighters in the field.

Meanwhile, the peace deal the Taliban had hammered out with Khalilzad was also to include the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for prisoners being held by the Taliban.

A separate set of negotiations were held for the release of the two Western professors at the American University in Kabul.

In that deal the two were to be exchanged for 11 Taliban prisoners, including Anas Haqqani. An uncle of the Haqqanis was also to be released.

It's not clear what it would take to break the dead-lock but officials say a prisoner exchange and the release of the two professors may be enough to restart talks with the Taliban. 

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