DOHA: The latest round of talks between the Afghan government and Taliban in Doha ended without any progress on Sunday despite the group’s supreme leader throwing his weight behind a political settlement to the conflict.
Senior representatives of the Kabul government including head of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah flew in for two days of intensive talks as Taliban pushes a sweeping offensive across Afghanistan.
They had sought to revive long-stalled peace talks, but in a joint statement agreed on the need to reach a “just solution” and to meet again “next week”.
Ahead of the second day of talks, Taliban supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada had said “the Islamic Emirate strenuously favours a political settlement” despite the groups lightning victories on the ground.
But the Qatari facilitator of the talks said at the end of the two days that the sides had merely agreed to “work to prevent civilian casualties”, far short of previously agreed ceasefires.
“The two sides agreed to continue negotiations at a high level until a settlement is reached. For this purpose, they will meet again next week,” said Qatar’s counter-terrorism envoy Mutlaq al-Qahtani who oversees the talks for Doha.
For months, the two sides have been meeting intermittently in the Qatari capital, but have achieved little if any notable success. The discussions appear to have lost momentum as the militants made enormous gains on the battlefield.
Complex military campaigns
Taliban leader Akhundzada has said his group remained committed to forging a solution to end the war, but slammed the group’s opponents for “wasting time”.
The group 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.
The group is now believed to control roughly half of the nation’s 400 districts, several important border crossings, and has laid siege to a string of vital provincial capitals.
A spokesman for the Afghan security forces said that pro-government fighters had conducted 244 operations, killing 967 “enemy” fighters — including key commanders.
“We have recaptured 24 districts so far, our goal is to retake all the territories… We are ready to defend our country,” Ajmal Omar Shinwari told reporters.
The Taliban have long appeared to be united, operating under an effective chain of command and carrying out complex military campaigns despite perennial rumours of splits within their leadership.
But questions remain over how much control the Taliban’s leaders have over commanders on the ground, and whether they will be able to convince them to abide by a potential agreement if signed.
Despite coming days ahead of the Eid holiday, the leader’s statement notably made no mention of a formal call for a ceasefire.
Over the years, the Taliban have announced a series of short truces during Islamic holidays, initially spurring hopes for a larger reduction of violence.
However, the group has been criticised for using the temporary ceasefires to resupply and reinforce their fighters, allowing them to launch withering onslaughts on Afghanistan’s security forces once the truce expires.
In another sign of the threats facing the Afghan government, on Sunday it said it was recalling its ambassador to Islamabad and all senior diplomats over “security threats”.
The top envoy’s daughter was briefly kidnapped in the Pakistani capital this week.
Islamabad has touted a conference of regional leaders to address the violence after the Eid al-Azha holiday, due to start Monday.
Many in Afghanistan are planning for a subdued Eid festival.
“This year we will not be slaughtering” sheep or goats, as per tradition, said Abdullah, a resident of Jalalabad in Afghanistan’s east.
“It’s because the situation of our country is not good. The fighting is ongoing. We are concerned,” he added.
“People are poor and most of them are worried about the increase in violence.”
The US-led military coalition has been on the ground in Afghanistan for nearly two decades following an invasion launched in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Fears are growing that Afghan forces will be overwhelmed without vital coalition air support, allowing for a complete Taliban military takeover or the start of a multi-sided civil war in a country awash with weapons following nearly four decades of fighting.