Kabul, Taliban negotiators meet in Qatar as Afghan fighting rages
Representatives of the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents held talks in Doha on Saturday as violence raged in their country with foreign forces almost entirely withdrawn.
The two sides have been meeting on and off for months in the Qatari capital, but the talks have lost momentum as the insurgents made battlefield gains.
Several high-ranking officials, including head of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah, gathered in a luxury hotel on Saturday after morning prayers for a session that ran for several hours.
They were joined by negotiators from the Taliban’s political office in Doha.
Talks were due to resume on Sunday, Najia Anwari, spokeswoman for the Afghan government negotiating team in Doha, told AFP without elaborating.
“Tomorrow they will definitely have a final result of all the work they have done,” she said.
US special envoy on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad was present as the two sides began to meet.
The sides met behind closed doors after a brief interaction with the media.
– ‘Our greater goals’ –
The Taliban have capitalised on the last stages of the withdrawal of US and other foreign troops from Afghanistan to launch a series of lightning offensives across the country.
Taliban spokesman Muhamad Naeem told the Al Jazeera broadcaster ahead of Saturday’s talks that the “priority is to solve the problems through dialogue”.
The session between the government and the Taliban side led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar began with Koranic recitations, Naeem tweeted.
“As we pursue our greater goals, we have to go beyond the details,” Baradar said in his opening remarks.
After the talks, Abdullah wrote on Twitter: “We are looking for a positive and constructive outcome.”
A key crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan partially reopened on Saturday, days after the Taliban took control of the Afghan side of the border.
A Pakistani border official, who did not want to be named, said small groups were being allowed into Chaman in Pakistan, while hundreds were heading into Spin Boldak in Afghanistan.
Pakistani Noor Ali, who had been visiting Kabul, said it took him two attempts to reach the border in recent days because of fighting in Kandahar province.
“I was scared, but the Taliban did not create any problems, they checked my documents and allowed me to go through,” he told AFP after arriving in the nearby city of Quetta.
An AFP journalist witnessed people crossing in both directions.
The Taliban have also tightened their grip on the north, with clashes continuing in the stronghold of warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum that borders Turkmenistan.
Also on Saturday, the French government flew out around 100 of its citizens and Afghans working for the embassy from the capital, as security deteriorated, a French diplomatic source said.
Several other countries including India, China, Germany and Canada have flown out their citizens or told them to leave in recent days.
There have been weeks of intensifying fighting across Afghanistan, with the Taliban pressing multiple offensives and overrunning dozens of districts.
– Taliban onslaught –
As fighting raged over large swathes of Afghanistan, a war of words was also heating up between Kabul and Islamabad, after the Afghan vice president accused the Pakistani military of providing “close air support to Taliban in certain areas”.
Pakistan strongly denied the claim, with its foreign ministry saying the country “took necessary measures within its territory to safeguard our own troops and population”.
Islamabad had touted a conference of regional leaders to address the spiralling violence.
Instead it announced it would delay the summit until after the Muslim Eid al-Adha feast, due to start next week at the end of the annual hajj pilgrimage, clearing the way for the Doha gathering.
Afghanistan’s southern border has long been a flashpoint in relations with its eastern neighbour.
Foreign troops have been in Afghanistan for nearly two decades following the US-led invasion launched in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
With their departure, fears have growing that Afghan forces will be overwhelmed without the vital air support they provide.