Pakistan to host four-way talks to revive Afghan peace process


Islamabad (AFP)

Pakistan's capital Islamabad is set to host the first ever round of four-way talks aimed at reviving dialogue between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban on Monday, even as the insurgents push ahead with an unprecedented winter surge.

Some analysts hope the added presence of China and the United States may help overcome mistrust between Pakistan and Afghanistan, though Taliban representatives themselves are not due to attend and it remains unclear when they will return to the negotiating table.

Pakistan's foreign office said the meeting would be held at 10:00 am (0500 GMT) Monday.

"Senior officials of Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the US will attend the meeting. The adviser to the prime minister on foreign affairs, Mr Sartaj Aziz, will address the opening session," it said in a statement.

The so-called "roadmap" talks are meant to lay the groundwork for direct dialogue between Kabul and the Islamist group, whose bloody insurgency shows no signs of abating more than 14 years after they were ousted from power by a US-led coalition.

Javed Faisal, spokesman for Afghanistan's Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, confirmed the talks and added: "The Pakistani government will present the list of Taliban who are willing to talk and those who are not interested in talks."

Pakistan was among three countries that recognised the Taliban's 1996-2001 regime and Kabul has long accused Islamabad of continuing to covertly support the group in their insurgency.

- Taliban infighting -

A first round of dialogue with the Taliban was held in July but collapsed after the group belatedly confirmed their first leader Mullah Omar was dead.

News of his death led to infighting between senior Taliban leaders and the group's new chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour, which in turn led to the creation of a new faction headed by Mohamed Rasool in November.

Mansour himself was shot and wounded near the Pakistani city of Quetta in December, apparently by one of his own men.

But despite the internal rifts and the onset of winter, the group have continued to carry out brazen attacks.

In September the Taliban briefly seized the northern provincial capital of Kunduz -- the first time they had gained control of a city since the fall of their regime in 2001.

And in recent weeks they have seized large swathes of the key opium-rich district of Sangin in the southern province of Helmand, their traditional stronghold.

Observers say the intensifying fighting highlights a push by the militants to seize more territory to try to secure greater concessions during any direct talks.

A senior Taliban source from Mansour's faction told AFP that Pakistan had been in touch with Taliban leaders, but the group was waiting to see whether their rivals from Rasool's faction were also likely to attend.

"As far as I know the Taliban leadership is willing to attend any such meeting in future but we will also see which other Afghan group or a Taliban splinter group will be invited for these proposed peace talks," he said.

Rahimullah Yousufzai, an expert on militancy, termed the talks an "important development", adding the presence of the US and China provided extra weight.

But he cautioned: "The Taliban have not yet showed their willingness to talk, they said their first priority is to end their differences. In my opinion the splinter Rasool group will come but the presence of Mansour group is very important, so let us wait to see how they react."