Effort to revive Afghanistan peace talks begins in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD: Delegates from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States held talks on Monday to resurrect a stalled Afghan peace process and end nearly 15 years of bloodshed, even as fighting with Taliban insurgents intensifies.

Senior officials from the four countries are meeting in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, to launch a process they hope will lead to negotiations with Taliban insurgents, who are fighting to re-impose their strict brand of Islamist rule and are not expected at Monday's talks.

The Pakistani prime minister's foreign affairs adviser, Sartaj Aziz, opened the meeting, saying the primary goal should be to convince the Taliban to come to the table and consider giving up violence.

"It is therefore important that preconditions are not attached to the start of the negotiation process. This, we argue, will be counterproductive," he said.

"The threat of use of military action against irreconcilables cannot precede the offer of talks to all the groups."

Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Karzai and Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry were joined by Richard Olson, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and General Anthony Rock, the top US defence representative in Pakistan, as well as China's special envoy on Afghanistan affairs, Deng Xijun.

Renewed peace efforts come amid spiralling violence in Afghanistan, with last year one of the bloodiest on record following the withdrawal of most foreign troops at the end of 2014.

In recent months the Taliban have won territory in the southern province of Helmand, briefly captured the northern city of Kunduz and launched a series of suicide bombs in the capital, underlining how hard Afghan government forces are finding it fighting on their own.

Peace efforts last year stalled after the Taliban announced that their founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had been dead for two years, throwing the militant group into disarray as rival factions fought for supremacy.

The Taliban, who were ousted in 2001, remain split on whether to take part in talks.

Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour's faction has shown signs of warming to the idea of eventually joining peace talks, and other groups are considering negotiating, senior members of the movement said last week.

But a splinter group headed by Mullah Mohammad Rasool Akhund, which rejects Mansour's authority, has dismissed any talks where a mediating role is played by Pakistan, which observers say holds significant sway among Taliban commanders holed up near its border with Afghanistan, or the United States or China.

"We have a very clear-cut stance about peace talks: all the foreign occupying forces would need to be withdrawn," Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, Rasool's deputy, told Reuters on Monday.

"The issue is between the Afghans and only the Afghans can resolve it. We would not allow any third force to mediate between us."

Officials are keen to limit expectations of a quick breakthrough at Monday's talks.

Afghanistan has said the aim is to work out a road map for peace negotiations and a way of assessing if they remain on track.