Latest round of 4-country talks to end Afghan war begin

KABUL: Representatives of four countries gathered amid tight security in the Afghan capital Kabul on Monday for a second round of talks aimed at bringing an end to Afghanistan's 15-year war with the Taliban by charting a roadmap to peace.

Senior officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States would meet for one day, a week after a first round of discussions in the Pakistani capital Islamabad, said Shekib Mostaghni, the Afghan Foreign Ministry's spokesman.

Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani opened the meeting at the Presidential Palace in the center of the capital calling on the Taliban to "accept the government's call for peace through dialogue."

"There isn't a single Afghan family that hasn't been affected by the daily acts of brutal and deadly terrorism carried out across our cities, towns, and villages," Rabbani said in the televised speech.

"I take this opportunity and call on all Taliban groups to accept our call for peace through dialogue, and to come to the table for talks so that we can resolve all differences politically and ensure the rightful and just desire of the Afghan people for lasting peace," he said.

The meeting — which does not include Taliban representatives— is part of a three-step process, said Abdul Hakim Mujahid of Kabul's High Peace Council, set up by former President Hamid Karzai to bring about an end to the war. Mujahid also served in the Taliban's 1996-2001 administration.

"The first step is to formulate a roadmap, the second is to invite the armed opposition to the negotiating table and the last step is the implementation of the peace plan," Mujahid told The Associated Press.

Analysts have said it will be months before even the second stage — bringing the Taliban into direct dialogue with Kabul — is reached. Meanwhile, the insurgents are stepping up their war against Kabul, as Afghan forces fight largely without the support of international troops after the US and NATO combat mission drawdown at the end of 2014. This is seen as an attempt to boost legitimacy on the battlefield so the Taliban can enter any peace talks from a position of strength.

Independent analyst Haroun Mir said the talks also aimed to build trust between Afghanistan and Pakistan as "President Ghani has said first peace with Pakistan and then the Taliban."

After spending much of the first year of his presidency attempting to mend fences with Pakistan and cajole Islamabad into ending its alleged support for the Taliban in cities close to the Afghan border, Ghani sent bilateral relations into a chill after a series of deadly attacks in Kabul that he blamed on Pakistani-sponsored insurgent groups. Pakistan has denied accusations that it supports the Taliban on its soil.

Mostaghni said the same people were gathered in Kabul as in Islamabad to discuss the roadmap, "focusing on peace negotiations and concluding the agenda on which to move forward."

They are Afghanistan's Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Karzai, US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard G. Olson, his Chinese counterpart Deng Xijun and Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry. Sartaj Aziz, a senior foreign policy adviser to Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pentagon's senior envoy to Pakistan, Lt. Gen. Anthony Rock, were also present.

The talks revive a process that began in July with the first and so far only official meeting between representatives of Kabul and the Taliban sponsored by the Pakistanis. A second round was cancelled after the Afghan government announced that the Talban's founder and leader Mullah Mohammad Omar had been dead since early 2013, and the militant group had been secretly run by his deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. Once the lie was revealed, the Taliban split into factions and it remains unclear who will represent the insurgency if and when a dialogue does begin.

An official in Kabul from one of the countries involved in the talks said that another two rounds of these "preparatory meetings" were likely to take place as they worked out the details of a future dialogue.

"There are different opinions about the methodologies and approaches in resuming these talks," he said. The roadmap would include "who do they want to talk to, on what timetable, what incentives are to be offered, and what kind of action will be taken with those people who want to talk and those who do not want to talk," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak with the media on the issue.