US, Taleban deny peace talks planned in Qatar

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AFP) - The US and the Taleban central spokesman on Thursday denied plans to hold peace talks in Qatar, contradicting earlier claims by militant leaders that contacts would resume in the Gulf state within weeks.

The denials came after multiple commanders said five former members of the Taleban supreme council would soon restart contacts with US officials in Qatar to try to get peace talks on track after more than 13 years of war in Afghanistan.

"The United States currently has no meetings with the Taleban scheduled in Doha," National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said.

The Taleban's central command also sought to distance itself from the announcement, saying its conditions for full-blown talks were a long way from being met.

"We do not have any plans for negotiations with anyone in Qatar. Regarding the negotiations, there is no new change in the policy of Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan," Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.

There have been several attempts at starting dialogue in recent years between the Taleban, Kabul and the United States - the Afghan government's chief supporter - but with little success.

The Taleban opened an office in Qatar in June 2013 as the first move towards a possible peace deal, but it shut a month later after enraging then Afghan president Hamid Karzai by styling it as the unofficial embassy for a government-in-exile.

The election last year of President Ashraf Ghani, who pledged to make peace talks a priority, as well as supportive signals from Pakistan, which has long held significant influence with the Taleban, has boosted hopes for possible dialogue.

"Five former members of the supreme council of the Afghan Taleban, headed by Tayyab Agha, will hold talks with the US," a senior Taleban cadre based in Pakistan had earlier told AFP.

A senior member of the Quetta Shura, the Taleban's governing council, also told AFP talks would be held, saying Karzai's departure as president had helped clear the way.

"This time the Taleban will speak to Americans face to face in Qatar, this is what Karzai was afraid of, he did not want Americans to represent the Afghan government," the commander told AFP.

The sources suggested that the talks were likely to begin within weeks.

DIVERGENT FACTIONS

The Pakistan-based commander had cautioned that the preliminary contacts announced Thursday did not mean that Omar and the top Taleban leadership had given their blessing to full-blown peace talks.

The Taleban movement has several strands within it, some more inclined to negotiate than others, and they are not always in harmony.

Agha, Omar's former private secretary, is the head of a political branch of the Taleban that has been open to talks for several years.

But his is only one part of the Taleban's supreme council, which makes strategic decisions for the movement and has previously said it was against talks with the Americans as long as US soldiers remained on Afghan soil.

There has been talk of a growing rift in recent years between the Taliban's ageing central leadership and younger, more hardline field commanders.

Graeme Smith, a Kabul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, said Thursday's announcements and denials were "the latest chapter on what will be an extremely long process".

"It is clear that there is some movement on the reconciliation, but it is unclear yet what that movement is," Smith told AFP.

"President Ghani was pretty vague in a meeting this morning with ambassadors. His main message was that the donors should stay at arms length from the process. The leaks to the media today (on the talks) was the opposite."

After meeting the Afghan High Peace Council on Thursday, Ghani said "there is peace consensus in Afghanistan, and we should turn it into reality".

In any event, the beginning of peace talks would not necessarily bring with it a Taleban ceasefire, as a UN report published Wednesday revealed the bloody security situation facing Afghanistan.

The number of civilian casualties in 2014 leapt by more than 20 percent from a year earlier, according to the UN's annual casualty report, with most killed in ground fighting.

The US-led Nato mission in Afghanistan ended its combat operations at the end of 2014, but a contingent of 12,500 foreign troops has stayed on to give training and support to Afghanistan's 350,000 soldiers and police.

Thursday's news comes two days after Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif held talks in Kabul with Ghani.

Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, long mired in mutual suspicion and mistrust, have warmed considerably since Ghani took power.

Pakistan's military, which holds huge sway over the country's foreign policy, particularly in its immediate backyard, released a statement Thursday saying it supported reconciliation between Afghanistan and the Taleban.