Afghan foes meet in bid to secure peace

Afghan foes meet in bid to secure peace

Dozens of powerful Afghans including bitter rivals will meetwith the Taliban in Doha Sunday, amid separate talks between the US and theinsurgents seeking to end 18 years of war.

Stakes are high for both sets of talks. Washington has saidit wants to seal a political deal with the Taliban ahead of Afghan presidentialpolls due in September to allow foreign forces to begin to withdraw.

"These six days have been the most productive of therounds we've had with the Talibs," the US lead negotiator Zalmay Khalilzadsaid Saturday of the US-Taliban talks in Qatar.

That engagement has been put on hold for the two-day Afghandialogue and will resume on Tuesday, both sides have said.

"Essentially the four items we have been talking aboutever since we started (are) terrorism, withdrawal of foreign troops,inter-Afghan negotiations and dialogue, and ceasefire," Khalilzad toldAFP.

"For the first time I can say we have had substantivediscussions, negotiations, and progress on all four issues." The Taliban'sspokesman in Qatar, Suhail Shaheen, said they are "happy with progress…We have not faced any obstacles yet".

The separate intra-Afghan talks set to start Sunday areexpected to be attended by around 60 delegates, including political figures,women and other Afghan stakeholders.

The United States will not participate directly in the two-daysummit, which has been organised by Qatar and Germany.

The Taliban, who have steadfastly refused to negotiate withthe government of President Ashraf Ghani, have stressed that those attendingare only doing so in a "personal capacity".

Ghani's administration, which the Taliban consider a puppetregime, has also been excluded from the direct US-Taliban talks.

Sunday's gathering will be the third such meeting followingsimilar summits in Moscow in February and May.

The first encounter was an historic breakthrough and saw theTaliban hear the opinions of the two women attendees before laying out theirconstitutional and political programme on live TV for the first time.

An agreement with the Taliban is expected to have two mainpoints — a US withdrawal from Afghanistan and a commitment by the militantsnot to provide a base for terrorists, the main reason for the US invasionnearly 18 years ago.

The United States, which by some estimates has spent USD 1trillion in Afghanistan, will likely try to insist in the deal that the Talibanopen negotiations with Ghani's government.

But the thorny issues of women's rights, power-sharing withthe Taliban, the role of regional powers including Pakistan and India, and thefate of Ghani's administration remain unresolved.

In areas of Afghanistan currently under Taliban control,they have shown little evidence of updating their strict interpretation ofIslamic law and women continue to face violent repression.

The Taliban, believing they have the upper hand in the war,have kept up attacks even while talking to the United States and agreeing tothe Afghan dialogue.

An attack last week that targeted the defence ministrydamaged five schools, with at least six people killed and scores more —including 50 children — hurt mainly by flying glass.

Despite the violence, both the Taliban and US have beenpositive about their engagement.

"We've had friendly periods — but (before) there hasalso been a lot of anger sometimes, strong words. Walking away," said USenvoy Khalilzad. The atmosphere of the latest session was "uniquely morepositive," he told AFP.

Laurel Miller, the US special representative for Afghanistanand Pakistan until 2017, said there was "strong possibility" of reachinga deal before September.

"But an agreement that is just between the US and theTaliban is not a peace agreement for Afghanistan," she said.

"It doesn't address the really hard questions of whatrole the Taliban is going to play or not play in governing Afghanistan and whathappens to the current government and system of government that the UnitedStates helped set up."

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