Afghan Talks Agree on Reopening Taliban Political Office

Afghanistan Peace Talks With the Taliban
Policemen fire from an armored vehicle during a battle with Taliban insurgents in Kunduz province, Afghanistan May 3, 2015. Reuters

AL-KHOR, Qatar/PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Representatives at preliminary talks aiming to end Afghanistan's long war have agreed that Taliban insurgents should open a political office for negotiations, but disagreement over foreign troops still clouds the prospects for a ceasefire.

A statement issued on Monday outlined the agreements reached by at least 40 delegates to a "non-official meeting" bringing together Taliban representatives, Afghan government figures and U.N. representatives at a two-day meeting held in Qatar.

The dialogue was a step toward a peace process that has proved elusive during a war that has killed tens of thousands of Afghans since the Taliban were driven from power by a 2001 U.S.-led military operation.

Delegates agreed the Taliban should re-open a political office in Doha that caused a furor in 2013 when it was briefly inaugurated as part of a previous, failed attempt to start negotiations.

At the televised inauguration ceremony, the Taliban representatives raised the flag of their former regime, enraging then-president Hamid Karzai and dooming hoped-for talks.

Afghanistan's new leader, Ashraf Ghani, has made negotiations a priority since taking office last year.

The delegates also called for the removal of key Taliban leaders' names from a U.N. terrorism blacklist so they could travel to negotiations, according to the statement by the Pugwash Council, a global organization that promotes conflict resolution. It co-hosted the talks with Qatar's government.

Pugwash said more than 40 representatives including several Afghan women had attended the Qatar meeting.

However, there was no progress on the main obstacle to a ceasefire - the continued presence of around 10,000 U.S. military trainers and counter-terrorism forces.

The talks ended on Sunday with pledges to hold a similar dialogue in the future.

The informal talks came as fighting escalated after the withdrawal of most U.S. and allied troops. The Taliban recently launched an offensive in northern Afghanistan that brought its fighters to the outskirts of Kunduz city, a provincial capital.

The Afghan government has made no official statement on the meetings, though members of the country's High Peace Council attended.

One Taliban participant in the talks told Reuters an eight-member Taliban delegation had held direct talks with Afghan officials.

"The Afghan delegation and Qayyum Kochai, uncle of (Afghan) President Ashraf Ghani, demanded we stop our fighting and announce a ceasefire," he said.

The Taliban said they would not stop fighting until all foreign forces had left Afghanistan, he said.

The government delegation argued that most foreigners had already left and only trainers remained, who would also leave if the Taliban stopped fighting, he said.