Afghanistan says next round of talks with Taleban to discuss ways of ending bloodshed

A bomb blast targeting NATO forces in Kabul on July 7, as the Taleban step up attacks as part of their annual summer offensive, just hours before Afghan negotiators held talks with Taleban militant commanders.
A bomb blast targeting NATO forces in Kabul on July 7, as the Taleban step up attacks as part of their annual summer offensive, just hours before Afghan negotiators held talks with Taleban militant commanders. PHOTO: AFP

KABUL (AFP) - Afghan negotiators said Thursday their next round of talks with the Taleban would focus in detail on ways to end bloodshed in the country, wracked by nearly 40 years of war.

Government representatives struck a positive note after returning from their first face-to-face talks with militant commanders held on Tuesday in Pakistan aimed at ending the Taleban's 13-year insurgency.

The nascent talks have brought no let up in the Taleban's summer offensive, as the militants launched two suicide attacks in Kabul just hours before Tuesday's meeting in Murree, a hill station north of Islamabad.

The session, which lasted through the night, concluded with an agreement to meet again after the Muslim festival of Eid, due to start around July 18, and government negotiator Din Mohammad said the aim was for more substantive talks on ending the fighting.

"In that meeting, a detailed discussion will be focused on preventing bloodshed in Afghanistan," he told reporters in Kabul.

Several informal meetings have been held in recent months between Taleban representatives and Afghan officials and activists, but Tuesday's meeting is seen as a step forward.

The Afghan High Peace Council (HPC) delegation was led by Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai - the first time such a senior government figure has publicly met the militants.

Mohammad said the meeting also included a member of the Haqqani network, a hardline militant group blamed for some of the deadliest and most audacious attacks in Afghanistan in recent years.

"It is not easy to begin negotiations at any point, both sides have their own demands, but since it was the first official meeting, we consider it a positive step forward," Mohammad said.

In the past the Taleban have laid down tough conditions for talks, including the complete withdrawal of foreign troops.

Karzai said the militants' negotiators raised the troop issue on Tuesday, as well as the question of Taleban prisoners and the blacklisting of their leadership by the United Nations.

Divisions within the Taleban movement, particularly between young battle commanders in Afghanistan and older leadership figures abroad, have helped to hamper peace efforts over the years.

The extent to which the talks process will be respected by disparate factions remains unclear, but Karzai insisted the people they met had the support and permission of the Taleban leadership, who are believed to be based in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta.

"The people we met did have permission from the Taliban leadership and were representing Quetta shura," Karzai said.

NATO ended its combat mission at the end of December, leaving Afghan forces to battle the resurgent Taliban on their own.

Stretched on multiple fronts and facing record casualties, Afghan forces are struggling to rein in the militants, and there are persistent fears that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group is growing in influence in the country's restive southeast.