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WASHINGTON: The first US-backed intra-Afghan talks begin on Sunday (today) in Doha, which is also the venue of face-to-face talks between the US and Taliban representatives.

Chief US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad announced on Saturday that they were pausing the US-Taliban talks to facilitate the two-day intra-Afghan conference in the Qatari capital.

Mr Khalilzad, who has been in Doha since late June for the seventh round of peace talks with the Taliban, wrote in a tweet that “the last 6 days of talks have been the most productive session to date”.

The US envoy also identified the areas where he said there had been progress. “We made substantive progress on ALL 4 parts of a peace agreement: counter-terrorism assurances, troop withdrawal, participation in intra-Afghan dialogue & negotiations, and permanent & comprehensive ceasefire,” he wrote.

The US-Taliban talks were “pausing today to support intra-Afghan dialogue, a critical milestone in the Afghan peace process”, he wrote, adding that the negotiations would resume soon after the conference.

“There is still important work left to be done before we have an agreement. We will resume on the 9th (July) after the dialogue,” he wrote.

Germany and Qatar are jointly hosting the intra-Afghan conference but Washington also backs it strongly as a first step towards a comprehensive dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government. US officials say that there can be no peace in Afghanistan until the two adversaries sit and resolve their differences. Taliban leaders, however, continue to refuse to hold direct talks with Kabul, claiming that it’s a “puppet regime.”

A 50-member delegation from Afghanistan reached Doha on Saturday to attend the meeting. A BBC report claimed that “some members of the (Afghan) government are also expected to take part - but ... in a personal capacity”.

The delegation includes representatives of various political groups, civil society members, youths and journalists. Members of another intra- Afghan delegation that held two rounds of talks with the Taliban in Moscow this year are not included. Reports from Doha indicate that the talks would focus on “the ongoing efforts for peace and reconciliation”.

On July 2, Germany’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Markus Potzel announced that Germany and Qatar would jointly host an Intra-Afghan conference in Doha on July 7 and 8.

“Afghanistan stands at a critical moment of opportunity for progress towards peace and an essential component of any process leading to this objective will be a direct engagement between Afghans,” Ambassador Potzel said.

The organisers hope that the talks will open a communication line between the Taliban and Afghan politicians, which can be useful for reducing their differences on key issues.

Ambassador Khalilzad also expressed similar views, saying in a tweet that “agreeing to resolve political differences without force is what is needed to learn from the tragedy of the last 40 years”.

The United States had arranged an earlier round of intra-Afghan talks last April, also in Doha, but the Taliban refused to participate after Kabul sent a list of 250 delegates. The Taliban argued that they had asked for a peace mission, not a wedding party.

Meanwhile, the US media reported on Saturday that Washington was not seeking a fixed deadline for withdrawal of its estimated 14,000 troops from Afghanistan as part of a final peace deal in the 18-year-old war.

A US official in Doha told The Associated Press news agency that the US “definitely did not offer” an 18-month withdrawal as part of a peace deal. That’s the timeframe that Taliban officials were demanding, the report added.

Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2019