Detention of Taliban commander disrupts Afghan peace talks

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- A top Taliban commander in the midst of peace negotiations with the Afghan government has been detained in the United Arab Emirates, according to Afghan officials -- an action that thwarts long-term reconciliation efforts between insurgents and President Hamid Karzai's government.

Agha Jan Motasim, the Taliban's former finance minister, was taken from his family's home by Emirati authorities about a month ago, Afghan officials said, just as Mr. Karzai's government was growing optimistic about a breakthrough in peace talks. "Known and secret enemies of peace in Afghanistan continue sabotaging our peace process," said Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi.

Emirati officials declined to comment on Mr. Motasim's arrest.

U.S. officials raised doubts about Mr. Motasim's role as a prominent peace negotiator, saying his ties to the Taliban leadership had faded in recent years. U.S. officials added that Mr. Motasim's arrest was unrelated to his role as a peace negotiator.

But Afghan officials say Mr. Motasim was the best chance that Afghanistan had at a peace deal. In recent years, he had held meetings with current and former Taliban members, expressing hope for the peace process. He gave interviews to international media outlets to broadcast his plans for reconciliation to a wide audience. In the UAE, Afghan officials said, Mr. Motasim proved particularly helpful, agreeing to meet with Afghan emissaries in March and attempting to recruit high-level Taliban members to the peace process.

But he had long been detached from Taliban leaders -- first in Turkey, where he identified himself as an emissary from the organization, and then in the UAE. Many Western officials questioned his Taliban bona fides, even as Mr. Karzai seemed to invest in Mr. Motasim's ability to put an end to the insurgency.

For years, one of the biggest hurdles to reconciliation efforts has been finding Taliban negotiating partners who are perceived as legitimate by the group's leadership in Pakistan. Publicly, the Taliban have largely dismissed the peace process as fruitless and referred to Mr. Karzai as only a "stooge."

In June, after what appeared to be significant progress, peace talks in Doha, Qatar, were derailed after a Taliban office raised a banner declaring it an outpost of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," the name under which the Taliban ruled the country before the U.S.-backed invasion.

Since then, Western officials have expressed little optimism about the peace process. But Mr. Karzai has independently pursued reconciliation through his government's High Peace Council, which deemed Mr. Motasim a key intermediary. A statement from the council Thursday referred to "the esteemed Motasim" as "one of the Taliban's important leaders."

Afghan officials say they have not formally been told why Mr. Motasim has been arrested, but that they have heard explanations from individual members of the UAE government. "He was meeting certain suspicious people, and the Emiratis were worried about him," said one Afghan official.

Other officials argue that, even though the circumstances surrounding Mr. Motasim's arrest remain unclear, it is perceived by Karzai officials as a sign of foreign interference.

Although Afghan officials have not pointed to any proof that would link Pakistan to Mr. Motasim's arrest, Afghanistan's eastern neighbor is widely seen in Kabul as abetting insurgents and stymieing peace efforts.


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