Afghan rivals end talks in Doha with no breakthrough

They will meet again next week after discussions appear to have lost momentum amid enormous battlefield gains by the militants

The head of Afghanistan's High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah (2nd-L) shakes hands with Qatar's envoy on counter-terrorism Mutlaq al-Qahtani (C) as the leader of the Taliban negotiating team Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar looks on during the final declaration of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar's capital Doha on July 18, 2021.  - The Taliban's supreme leader he "strenuously favours" a political settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan, even as the hardline Islamist movement pushes a sweeping offensive across the nation.  For months, the two sides have been meeting intermittently in the Qatari capital, but have achieved little if any notable success.  The discussions appear to have lost momentum as the militants made enormous gains on the battlefield.  (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR  /  AFP)
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The latest talks between the Afghan government and Taliban in Doha have ended without significant progress even after the insurgents' leader said he "strenuously favours" a political settlement to the conflict.

Senior representatives of the government, including head of the High Council for National Reconciliation Dr Abdullah Abdullah, flew in for two days of intensive talks as the insurgents conducts a sweeping offensive across Afghanistan.

They had sought to revive long-stalled peace talks, but in a joint statement on Sunday agreed on the need to reach a "just solution" and to meet again "next week".

Ahead of the second day of talks, Taliban supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada had said "the Islamic Emirate strenuously favours a political settlement" despite the group's victories.

Members of the Taliban delegation at the peace talks with Afghan government in Doha. AFP

However, a spokesman for the Taliban's political office said on Sunday that the group did not suggest an Afghan truce during the Doha talks.

"We did not present in the Doha talks a proposal for a three-month truce," the spokesman said.

He said the meetings with the Afghan government delegation would continue in the future and that the talks were "a good opportunity to bring views closer".

But the Qatari facilitator of the talks said at the end of the two days that the sides had merely agreed to "work to prevent civilian casualties", far short of previously agreed ceasefires.

"The two sides agreed to continue negotiations at a high level until a settlement is reached. For this purpose, they will meet again next week," said Qatar's counter-terrorism envoy Mutlaq Al Qahtani, who oversees the talks for Doha.

High Council for National Reconciliation head Abdullah Abdullah, left, Qatar's envoy on counter-terrorism Mutlaq Al Qahtani, second from left, and Taliban lead negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, third from left, at the talks. AFP

For months, the two sides have been meeting intermittently in the Qatari capital, but have achieved little if any notable success. The discussions appear to have lost momentum as the militants made enormous gains on the battlefield.

The Taliban leader has said his group remained committed to forging a solution to end the war, but criticised its opponents for "wasting time".

The insurgents capitalised on the last stages of the withdrawal of US and other foreign troops from Afghanistan to launch a series of offensives across the country.

The group is now believed to control roughly half of the nation's 400 districts and several important border crossings, and has laid siege to a string of vital provincial capitals.

A spokesman for the Afghan security forces said that pro-government fighters had conducted 244 operations, killing 967 "enemy" fighters – including important commanders.

"We have recaptured 24 districts so far. Our goal is to retake all the territories... We are ready to defend our country," Ajmal Omar Shinwari told reporters.

The Taliban have long appeared to be united, operating under an effective chain of command and carrying out complex military campaigns despite perennial rumours of splits within their leadership.

But questions remain over how much control the Taliban's leaders have over commanders on the ground, and whether they will be able to convince them to abide by a potential agreement if it is signed.

Even though the leader's statement came days ahead of the Eid Al Adha holiday, it notably made no mention of a formal call for a ceasefire.

Over the years, the Taliban have announced a series of short truces during Islamic holidays, initially raising hopes of a larger reduction of violence.

However, the group has been criticised for using the temporary ceasefires to resupply and reinforce fighters, allowing them to launch onslaughts against Afghanistan's security forces once the truce expires.

Islamabad has welcomed a conference of regional leaders to address the violence after the Eid holiday, due to start on Monday.

Many in Afghanistan are planning for a subdued Eid festival.

"This year we will not be slaughtering" sheep or goats, as is tradition, said Abdullah, a resident of Jalalabad in Afghanistan's east.

"It's because the situation of our country is not good. The fighting is ongoing. We are concerned," he added.

"People are poor and most of them are worried about the increase in violence."

The US-led military coalition has been on the ground in Afghanistan for nearly two decades following an invasion launched in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

Fears are growing that Afghan forces will be overwhelmed without vital coalition air support. This could allow for a complete Taliban military takeover or the start of a multi-sided civil war in a country awash with weapons following nearly four decades of fighting.

On Sunday, Afghanistan said it was recalling its ambassador to Islamabad over "security threats" after the ambassador's daughter was briefly kidnapped in the Pakistani capital.

Pakistan's Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid speaks during a press conference on the brief abduction of the daughter of Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, in Islamabad on July 18, 2021.  AFP

While few details have been released about the incident, Afghanistan's foreign ministry has said Silsila Alikhil was held for several hours on Friday by unknown individuals and "severely tortured".

"Following the abduction of the daughter of Afghan ambassador in Pakistan, the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan have recalled the Afghan envoy and other senior diplomats from Islamabad back to Kabul until all the security threats are removed," the ministry said in a statement on Sunday, demanding the arrest and prosecution of the kidnappers.

The ministry said Ms Alikhil was on her way home in the Pakistani capital when she was kidnapped. It said she was under medical care in hospital after being released.

Pakistan's foreign ministry said she had been assaulted in her car. It added that the security of the ambassador and his family was subsequently tightened.

Islamabad, a spacious city with a population of around a million, has relatively tight security.

"The abduction of Afghan ambassador's daughter and her subsequent torture have wounded the psyche of our nation. Our national psyche has been tortured," Afghanistan's Vice President Amrullah Saleh wrote on Twitter.

An Afghan delegation will visit Pakistan to assess the situation, after which "more steps will be taken", Afghanistan's foreign ministry added.

Afghanistan's decision to recall its ambassador "is unfortunate and regrettable," Pakistan's foreign ministry said in a statement.

It said the abduction was "being investigated and followed up at the highest level".

Pakistan's foreign secretary met the Afghan ambassador "and reassured him of full co-operation". The statement added: "We hope that the Government of Afghanistan would reconsider its decision."

Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have long been strained.

Kabul accuses Islamabad of offering safe haven to the Taliban, while Islamabad says Kabul turns a blind eye to militant groups launching attacks on Pakistan from its soil.

Updated: July 19, 2021, 6:12 PM