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Afghan Officials Meet With Taliban in Qatar

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By MARGHERITA STANCATI and HABIB KHAN TOTAKHIL

Taliban representatives launched a series of meetings with Afghan government officials in the Gulf emirate of Qatar on Saturday, even as insurgents press an offensive around the country.

Taliban and Afghan officials said an eight-member Taliban delegation and some Afghan officials were attending a two-day regional conference that began Saturday in Qatar, offering a possible forum for informal talks between the two warring parties.

Qatar on Saturday said it is hosting an “open discussion” between members of the Taliban and influential Afghans on the topic of reconciliation with the goal of facilitating peace, according to the official Qatar News Agency.

It is far from clear, however, whether the meetings in Qatar will lead to formal peace negotiations: Representatives of both the Taliban and the Kabul government described it as an opportunity to participate in an open discussion, rather than to negotiate peace.

Ahead of the conference, the Taliban said in a statement that eight members of its political commission would attend “in order to personally deliver the message of its oppressed nation and other such issues to the world.”

Taliban participation in the discussions “should not be misconstrued as peace or negotiation talks,” added the statement, which originally said talks would begin on Sunday.

The conference, organized by the Pugwash Council, a group that works on conflict resolution, offers a rare opportunity for the Taliban’s leadership to publicly discuss its political vision. The group of eight is led by Sher Muhammad AbbasStanikzai, who like most of the other delegates is based in Qatar, where the Taliban opened a political office in June 2013 as part of a short-lived, U.S.-brokered effort to kick off peace talks.

A person familiar with the matter said that some 15 officials from various branches of the Afghan government were expected to attend the Qatar conference.

At least two members of the High Peace Council, the Afghan government’s top peace-negotiating body, are attending the event. Abdul Hakim Mujahid, the acting head of the council, said that among them is Mullawee Attaullah Ludin, who is attending the event in a private capacity.

“This conference is an opportunity to exchange thoughts. The attendees will discuss the Afghan problem and share their perspectives,” Mr. Mujahid said. “This cannot be described as initial negotiations. There are no other expectations from this conference.”

The Taliban’s representatives have attended international forums before, most recently in December 2012, when they participated in a closed-door conference organized by a French think tank in the French town of Chantilly.

Since taking office last September, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has repeatedly tried to persuade the Taliban to negotiate an end to the country’s long-running conflict. Mr. Ghani in February raised expectations that a breakthrough was near, but those efforts faltered.

Much of the Taliban leadership is based in Pakistan, and the Afghan president hoped Islamabad could pressure the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. But ahead of Mr. Ghani’s official trip to the U.S. in late March, Pakistani officials came back with an answer: The Taliban had rejected the offer, according to an Afghan official.

“Before the Taliban said anything, Pakistan said: They don’t want to talk peace,” the official said. “Pakistan proved that they don’t want stability in Afghanistan.”

Pakistan has repeatedly said it wants a stable Afghanistan, and while it acknowledges it has some influence over the Taliban, it says it has no control over the movement.

The insurgency formally launched its annual offensive last week and said it would carry on fighting so long as foreign troops remain in Afghanistan.

Fighting around the country has been intense. In the northern province of Kunduz, Afghan forces this week were forced to launch a counteroffensive after militants closed in on the provincial capital of Kunduz City, the closest that a major Afghan city has come to falling to the Taliban in recent years.

Wall Street Journal