By Kay Johnson
The first official peace talks between the Afghan Taliban and the government in Kabul concluded with an agreement to meet again after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, officials said on Wednesday.
Pakistan hosted the meeting in a tentative step towards ending more than 13 years of war in neighbouring Afghanistan, where the Taliban have been trying to re-establish their hard-line Islamist regime after it was toppled by US-led military intervention in 2001.
The next round of talks is tentatively planned for Aug. 15 and 16 in Doha, capital of Qatar, according to sources close to the participants.
Tuesday’s meeting was hailed as a “breakthrough” by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
But it was far from clear whether the budding peace process could end an escalating conflict that kills hundreds of Afghans every month.
The Taliban’s leadership is divided over the peace process, and several commanders have defected to follow the rival jihadist Islamic State.
As Pakistan talks were ongoing, the Taliban launched two suicide attacks in Kabul on Tuesday, killing one person and wounding three.
A US drone strike also killed a former Taliban commander who pledged loyalty to Islamic State and had seized territory in the eastern province of Nangarhar.
US, CHINA INVOLVED
Officials from the United States and China were observers at the talks held on Tuesday in Murree, a hill resort near Islamabad, a statement from Pakistan’s foreign ministry said.
“The participants agreed to continue talks to create an environment conducive for peace and the reconciliation process,” the statement said.
In recent months there have been informal preliminary contacts between Taliban representatives and Afghan figures, but Tuesday’s event was the first official meeting.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States welcomed the talks in Pakistan, calling them “an important step toward advancing prospects for a credible peace”.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China backed the process and was in touch with all sides. China hopes peace in Afghanistan will help it keep stability in Xinjiang, where Beijing says it has been battling Islamist militants.
Afghanistan’s foreign ministry called the meeting “a first step toward reaching peace” and confirmed another round would be held after Ramadan ending next week.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has promoted the peace process and encouraged closer ties with neighbouring Pakistan in a bid to achieve his goal, first announced the talks on Tuesday.
Sharif cautioned in remarks released by his office that the effort would be difficult and said Afghanistan’s neighbours and the international community should ensure “nobody tries to derail this process”.
TALIBAN AUTHORISATION UNCLEAR
The Taliban’s official spokesman has in the past disavowed tentative moves towards a peace process, saying those meeting Afghan officials were not authorised to do so.
The participants in Tuesday’s meeting “were duly mandated by their respective leadership” according to the Pakistani statement, but it was unclear who on the Taliban side had authorised the delegation.
Division among Taliban leaders have been rife. Key political leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour favours negotiation, while battlefield commander Abdul Qayum Zakir, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, opposes talks with Kabul.
Pakistan has in recent months pledged to pressure Taliban leaders, many of whom are believed to be hiding in Pakistan, to come to the negotiating table. In February, Pakistan stated bluntly that Mansour and Zakir must agree on talks.
Because Zakir holds sway over several thousand fighters in eastern Afghanistan, it is uncertain whether any ceasefire, likely be the first demand by Kabul, could hold.
Silent throughout the process has been Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban’s reclusive supreme leader who has not been seen in public since the Taliban was toppled.
Some disgruntled Taliban commanders question whether Omar is alive, and several have switched loyalty to Islamic State, the Middle East-based group that has seized swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.