Taliban representatives to meet with Afghan officials in Qatar

The meeting would be the first sign of life in weeks for a hoped-for peace process. Could it lead to formal talks?

Osama Faisal/AP/File
While the Taliban office in Doha shown here has never opened, Qatar has become a place to open back-channel communication with the Taliban.

Qatar said on Saturday it was hosting a dialog this weekend between Afghan officials and representatives of the Taliban insurgents on ways to end the country's long war.

Taliban's official spokesman said the insurgents were sending an eight-member delegation to a conference in Doha held by the Pugwash Council, a global organization that promotes dialog to resolve conflicts. But he denied any move towards negotiations.

Another Taliban leader, however, and the deputy head of Afghanistan's High Peace Council indicated that face-to-face meetings on the sidelines of that conference were planned.

Such meetings would be the first sign of life in weeks for a hoped-for peace process, but it was unclear whether they would lead to formal talks between the Taliban and the US-backed Afghan government.

Several secret initiatives have failed over the 13-year-old war, and the Taliban recently launched a fierce new offensive that brought its fighters to the outskirts of a northern provincial capital.

"Qatar will host between 2-3 May a national dialog that will include representatives from the Taliban and other Afghan representatives who have significance in the Afghan scene,"Qatar News Agency quoted the foreign ministry as saying onSaturday.

"The dialog will be in the form of an open discussion on the Afghan reconciliation between all parties."

The announcement appeared to echo earlier statements by anAfghan official that the dialog would be on the sidelines of the conference.

Attaullah Ludin, deputy chief of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, said on Friday that he was going to Qatar as part of a 20-member Afghan delegation to have an "open discussion" with the Taliban and other international leaders.

And a senior Taliban leader in Qatar, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said informal meetings with Afghan officials were planned.

Previous efforts to open channels of communication, including the establishment of a Taliban political office in Qatar in 2013 as part of a US-sponsored push to promote talks, have led nowhere.

Hopes were raised again in February when Pakistan's Army chief told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that senior Taliban figures were finally open to talks, but since then there has been little progress.

One obstacle is division among the Taliban's fractured leadership over dialog. The insurgents' top political leaderis said to favor talks while the top battlefield commanderopposes them.

The Taliban's reclusive supreme leader, Mullah Omar, has not weighed in on talks. He has not been seen in years and somebattlefield commanders have questioned whether he is stillalive.

The divisions make it uncertain that the Taliban could enforce any cease fire that might eventually emerge if formal talks began.

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