Sher Abbas Stanekzai (left) shakes hands with Haji Deen Muhammad, leader of the Afghan High Peace Council, in Moscow in November 2018.Sher Abbas Stanekzai, who headed the Afghan Taliban negotiators in peace talks with the United States in Qatar, says the Americans “seemed very serious to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.”Stanekzai, who led the Taliban delegation at the Jan. 21-26 talks in Qatar, will step down as the leadership has appointed Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar as head of the political office in Qatar and will lead the peace process.The US and the Taliban reported progress in the talks and the Taliban officials have claimed they reached understanding on the “complete withdrawal of the troops” and that the Taliban will prevent Afghan soil from terrorism against other countries. Sources say the talks will resume next month, most likely on Feb. 25, for follow up discussions on the two major issues – withdrawal of troops and terrorism.“I think the US government is very serious to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. I am hopeful that the US envoy Zalmay Khalizad, will play key role in Afghan peace process,” Stanekzai said in a video message released by the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on social media. He said the Taliban political representatives believe Khalilzad has authority more than the previous US negotiators whom they would interact. “Our Jihad has forced the Americans to leave Afghanistan and now they are pursuing political option,” the Taliban negotiator said. When asked about President Ashraf Ghani’s statement that the US will withdraw troops from Afghanistan, he said Ashraf Ghani is “not independent” and Ghani offered the remarks after Khalilzad met him after the Qatar talks and he “may have told him to make such statement.” “Ashraf Ghani has no power to decide to keep foreign troops in Afghanistan. He also does not have the powers to ask the foreign troops to leave Afghanistan. It is up to the American to decide either to leave or to stay in Afghanistan,” the Taliban leader said.Talking about the upcoming presidential elections, he said Taliban do not recognize elections in Afghanistan legitimate under foreign invasion. “The elections will not be fair and transparent if held in the presence of the foreign troops and the government to be formed after the elections will also not be independent,” Stanekzai said, adding that only 10 percent people voted in previous elections. “Elected people will not be true representatives of the people but it will be an imposed administration on the people,” he said.The presidential elections, scheduled for April 20, have been delayed by three months and will be held in July.Stanekzai hoped that Mullah Baradar’s appointment as head of the political office will give a boost to the political activities as he has experience in political as well as military fields. Baradar, the Taliban former deputy chief, was released by Pakistan in October, on request by Khalilzad to facilitate the peace process, according to the foreign office spokesman. He was arrested in Karachi in 2010.Published in Daily Times, January 30th 2019.