Qatar says hosting dialogue with Taliban, Afghan officials

DOHA, Qatar (Reuters) - Qatar said on Saturday it was hosting a dialogue 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 dialogue 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 U.S.-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 dialogue 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 on Saturday.

“The dialogue will be in the form of an open discussion on the Afghan reconciliation between all parties.”

The announcement appeared to echo earlier statements by an Afghan official that the dialogue 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 U.S.-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 dialogue. The insurgents’ top political leader is said to favor talks while the top battlefield commander opposes them.

The Taliban’s reclusive supreme leader, Mullah Omar, has not weighed in on talks. He has not been seen in years and some battlefield commanders have questioned whether he is still alive.

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

Writing by Kay Johnson; editing by Clelia Oziel