ISLAMABAD: The countries participating in the quadrilateral framework for Afghan reconciliation adopted a roadmap on Saturday for guiding the process and invited Taliban groups for direct talks with Kabul being planned for the end of this month.

“The group adopted a roadmap stipulating the stages and steps in the process,” said a joint statement issued by Pakistan, Afghanistan, the US and China at the end of the third meeting of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) here.

It said that the four countries would make “joint efforts” for scheduling a dialogue between representatives of the Afghan government and Taliban before the end of this month. “The QCG members called on all Taliban groups to join the peace talks.”

Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz, while opening the meeting, said: “We believe our collective efforts at this stage, including through supportive confidence building measures, have to be aimed at persuading maximum number of Taliban groups to join the peace talks.”

The date for the talks is expected to be announced when the QCG meets in Kabul on Feb 23.

The group seemed to have moved quickly from the adoption of the roadmap to scheduling the first meeting between the Afghan government and Taliban. It is driven by the urgency to achieve a deal for lowering violence before the militants launch this year’s spring offensive.

The militants continued their activity last year with an unprecedented aggression during the ‘winter attacks’ in different parts of Afghanistan. Last year’s casualties were about 26 per cent higher than the previous year and Taliban are now believed to be holding more territory than at any time since they were ousted in 2001.

Pentagon officials have warned that the current year could be bloodier.

When the four countries met last year on the sidelines of the Heart of Asia Conference in Islamabad, was to achieve lowering of violence before this year’s spring offensive.

The QCG, announcing adoption of the roadmap, said the purpose of the reconciliation process was to reach a political settlement of the dispute and cessation of violence.

“Pakistan fully shares Afghanistan’s concern that increasing violence is a key challenge, and its reduction should be an important objective of peace talks,” Mr Aziz said. “We are confident that the process will lead to a significant reduction of violence.”

Taliban representatives, who participated in a track-II dialogue hosted by Pugwash Conferences in Qatar last month, had sounded sceptical about the four-nation initiative for reconciliation, but did not reject it outright. The militant group had on that occasion renewed their conditions for joining the process, including withdrawal of foreign forces, delisting of Taliban leaders by the United Nations sanctions committee and lifting of ban on their travel.

It is still unclear what confidence-building measures would the Afghan government take to incentivise the militants to join the peace dialogue.

Mr Aziz said “offering incentive of political mainstreaming to the insurgent groups” would gradually shrink the space for the “irreconcilables”.

He called for “persistence and perseverance” during the process to avoid hitting another roadblock like last year when the Murree process got suspended following disclosure about Mullah Omar’s death.

Published in Dawn, February 7th, 2016

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