Afghan leaders begin two-day peace talks in Pakistan

Conference covering the economy, health and the repatriation of refugees comes before Afghan president's visit.

    Politicians and tribal elders were among the attendees at the peace conference [Anjum Naveed/ AP Photo]
    Politicians and tribal elders were among the attendees at the peace conference [Anjum Naveed/ AP Photo]

    Dozens of Afghan political leaders have attended a conference in neighbouring Pakistan to discuss possible ways to achieve peace in the war-torn country.

    In the inaugural ceremony of the Afghan peace conference titled "Lahore Process" at Bhurbhan in Murree on Saturday, Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Pakistan is committed in its efforts to bring peace and stability in Afghanistan.

    "For far too long, the vicious circle of mistrust, often fed into by our common enemies, has affected our relationship. The blame-game has not helped either of us," Qureshi said, according to his speech notes released by the foreign ministry.

    "It is indispensable to move away from this negative paradigm. It is incumbent upon the leadership of the two countries to take practical steps to build mutual trust and confidence."

    The conference is to be followed by meetings and working sessions over the next two days, all of which come in the run-up to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's visit to Pakistan next week.

    There were no representatives of the Taliban armed group at the conference, held near the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

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    The meeting covered topics from trade to economy, health and repatriation of Afghan refugees.

    Ghani, opposition leaders and members of the Afghan civil society have been holding meetings in recent days with the United States special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who continues to press for talks between the Afghan government, the opposition and the Taliban.

    However, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who struck a peace deal with Ghani's government and was taken off a US "terrorist" list in 2017, attended the conference.

    That peace deal was touted as a blueprint for an agreement with the Taliban, although the armed group sees Hekmatyar as a spent force with no military might.

    Still, at the outset of the meeting, Hekmatyar urged his fellow Afghans to press for the Taliban's demand for a quick and full withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan.

    Among the figures in attendance on Saturday were the head of the Afghan government-sponsored high peace council, Mohammad Karim Khalili, as well as the leader of the powerful Jamiat-e-Islami political party, Ustad Atta Mohammad Noor, and a current presidential candidate, Haneef Atmar, who is a former national security adviser.

    The Afghan leaders were also scheduled to hold a meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan during their visit.

    Talks with Taliban in Doha

    Separately, the United States has been holding talks with the Taliban to find a negotiated exit to its 18-year engagement in Afghanistan.

    On Saturday, Khalilzad was in Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban maintains a political office, but it still was not clear when he would meet again with the group, who control or wield significant influence in nearly half of the country.

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    The Taliban has refused to sit with government representatives but says it will sit with any Afghan, even a government official, but as an ordinary Afghan and not as a government representative.

    In May, a delegation of Taliban officials led by the group's chief negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, met Afghan politicians in Russia's capital, Moscow to discuss the future of the country.

    Those talks marked the second time leaders from the group have met opposition leaders in Russia, following a rare gathering in February that saw the Taliban and Afghan politicians, including Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, praying together and chatting over meals.

    An "intra-Afghan dialogue" that was to be held in Doha in April was cancelled over the composition of the Afghan delegation coming from Kabul, with more than 240 people on the list to attend.

    Also on Saturday, Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani arrived in Islamabad on a two-day visit. He is visiting Pakistan for the first time in four years.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies