Powerful Afghans to meet Taliban in Doha to seek end to years of war

Dozens, including bitter rivals, to meet on Sunday

FILE In this file photo taken on Tuesday, May 28, 2019, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group's top political leader, third from left, arrives with other members of the Taliban delegation for talks in Moscow, Russia. The seventh and latest round of peace talks between the U.S. and Taliban is "critical," said Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen on Sunday June 30, 2019, the second day of talks with Washington's peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in the Mideastern state of Qatar, where the militant group maintains a political office. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
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Afghanistan's Taliban militants held talks with Afghan politicians and civil leaders in Doha on Sunday as part of an ongoing effort to end their 18-year insurgency.

The two-day meeting in the Qatari capital is the third such "intra-Afghan dialogue" after meeting in Moscow held in February and May.

Underlining the need for peace, a lorry bombing claimed by the Taliban killed 12 people and injured 179 in the eastern city of Ghazni.

About 70 delegates attended the talks on Sunday, including women, and security was tight at the luxury hotel venue.

"Gathered around the table today are some of the brightest minds representing a cross-section of Afghan society," Markus Potzel, Germany's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said as he opened the gathering.

"Each of you will have a unique opportunity and a unique responsibility to find ways of turning violent confrontation into a peaceful debate."

Germany is the co-sponsor of the talks, along with Qatar.

Delegate Asila Wardak, a member of the High Peace Council established by former president Hamid Karzai to engage with the Taliban elements said "everybody is emphasising on a ceasefire".

She said Taliban negotiator Abbas Stanikzai also spoke about another key issue in the talks - the role of women if the Taliban become part of the Afghan government. He outlined the group's position on "women's role, economic development, (and) the role of minorities", she told Agence France-Presse.

Mr Stanikzai said the Taliban "will allow women to work, to go to school and study – based on Afghan culture and Islamic values", she said.

The meeting comes during a break in the latest round of negotiations between the Taliban and President Donald Trump's special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad as the US seeks an end to its longest war.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hailed the meeting as "a long time coming".

"All Americans should be glad to see Afghans sitting with Afghans to begin the tough task of ending their country's conflict and building a shared future together," Mr Pompeo said on Twitter.

Earlier, Mr Khalilzad said there had been great progress in his latest discussions with the Taliban, which began on Monday.

“These six days have been the most productive of the rounds we’ve had with the Talibs,” he told Agence France-Presse on Saturday.

“Essentially, the four items we have been talking about ever since we started [are] terrorism, withdrawal of foreign troops, inter-Afghan negotiations and dialogue, and ceasefire,” Mr Khalilzad

“For the first time I can say we have had substantive discussions, negotiations and progress on all four issues.”

The Taliban’s spokesman in Qatar, Suhail Shaheen, said they were “happy with progress … We have not faced any obstacles yet”.

Both sides have said they will resume negotiations on Tuesday.

“We’ve had friendly periods – but [before] there has also been a lot of anger sometimes, strong words. Walking away,” Mr Khalilzad said, but the atmosphere of the latest session was “uniquely more positive”.

The two main points in the US-Taliban talks are a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and a commitment by the militants not to provide a base for terrorists, the main reason for the US-led invasion in 2011.

The US is also expected to press the Taliban to open direct talks with the government of President Ashraf Ghani, who is seeking another term in elections scheduled for September. The Taliban reject his government as a puppet of the West and have refused to negotiate with it.

Despite billions of dollars spent by the US on supporting and training Afghan forces, only about half of Afghanistan is under government control, with the Taliban holding sway in the rest of the country.

In areas of Afghanistan currently under Taliban control, they have shown little evidence of moderation, and women continue to face violent repression.

The Taliban, believing they have the upper hand in the war, have kept up attacks even while talking to the United States and agreeing to the Afghan dialogue.

An attack last week that targeted the defence ministry damaged five schools, killing at least six people and injuring scores more – including 50 children – hurt mainly by flying glass.

Despite the violence, both the Taliban and US have been positive about their engagement.

Laurel Miller, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan until 2017, said there was “strong possibility” of reaching a deal before September.

“But an agreement that is just between the US and the Taliban is not a peace agreement for Afghanistan,” she said.

“It doesn’t address the really hard questions of what role the Taliban is going to play or not play in governing Afghanistan and what happens to the current government and system of government that the United States helped set up.”