December 17, 2018 / 3:19 AM / 6 months ago

Afghan Taliban meet U.S. officials as peace efforts intensify

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan Taliban representatives and U.S. officials met in the United Arab Emirates on Monday, amid diplomatic moves towards establishing the basis for talks to end the 17-year-old war in Afghanistan.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said representatives from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE would also take part in the talks, which follow at least two meetings between Taliban officials and U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Qatar.

He said the meeting could take some time, while senior members of the Taliban in Afghanistan said the talks would continue for three days.

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict have intensified, although the Taliban have refused to deal directly with the internationally recognized government in Kabul, which it considers an illegitimate foreign-imposed regime.

The Taliban, seeking to reimpose strict Islamic law after their 2001 overthrow, say the presence of international forces in Afghanistan is the main obstacle to peace. Even as the peace process gathers momentum, fighting has continued with heavy casualties on both sides.

Khalilzad, an Afghan-born former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, was named to oversee Washington’s peace efforts earlier this year but the United States has insisted that any final settlement must be led by Afghans themselves.

“The meetings in Abu Dhabi (capital of the United Arab Emirates) are a part of efforts by the United States and other international partners to promote an intra-Afghan dialogue aimed at ending the conflict in Afghanistan,” a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Kabul said.

Although the Afghan government has not taken part directly in the talks, a team from Kabul met U.S. and Saudi officials in the UAE on Sunday to discuss the process, said Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib.

SAUDI ROLE?

Ghani has formed a team to negotiate peace with the Taliban but the movement once again rebuffed the opening on Monday, saying that some media reports suggesting the two sides would meet were “mere propaganda”.

“There is no plan of holding a meeting with representatives of the Kabul administration and neither are they present in the meeting being attended by the delegation of Islamic Emirate,” Mujahid said in a statement.

As well as establishing direct contacts with the Taliban, U.S. officials have stepped up efforts to win support from countries with an interest in Afghanistan, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Western diplomats said the decision to move the venue of the talks from Qatar to the UAE underscored efforts to involve Saudi Arabia, which is hostile to Qatar, more closely in the process and to exert influence on its ally, Pakistan.

In recent months Saudi Arabia has offered a $6 billion rescue package to Islamabad as the country attempts to plug its rapidly deteriorating finances.

“At this juncture, if Saudi Arabia tells Pakistan to support the Afghan peace process then there is no way that Pakistan can ignore it,” a senior Western diplomat in Kabul said.

Relations between Washington and Islamabad have long been strained over accusations that Pakistan supports insurgent groups in Afghanistan, a charge it denies. But earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump requested Pakistan’s support to advance the Afghan peace process.

Taliban officials from the movement’s political headquarters in Qatar and two representatives sent by Mullah Yaqub, elder son of the Taliban’s late founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, will be present.

Additional reporting by James Mackenzie and Rupam Jain in Kabul and Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar; Editing by Alison Williams

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