Afghan rivals to resume talks as civilian killings sow suspicion

KABUL: Afghan government representatives and Taliban officials are due to resume peace talks in Qatar after a three-week break, officials said on Monday, although battlefield clashes and targeted killings risk undermining efforts to end the war.

The negotiations, due to get going again on Tuesday, are expected to cover contentious issues such as power-sharing and a ceasefire after the two sides reached an initial agreement on procedural rules in December.

The talks began in Qatar in September months after the Taliban reached an agreement with the United States allowing it to pull its troops out of Afghanistan and end its longest war in exchange for Taliban security guarantees.

The Taliban have refused to recognise the US-backed government and that was an issue that would have to be tackled, said a member of the team representing the government.

“An interim government is an undeniable topic of discussion because we want a ceasefire and the Taliban aren’t ready to agree to one with the current government,” the delegate, Hafiz Mansoor, told Reuters in Kabul before setting off for Qatar.

A Taliban spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Under the terms of the agreement the United States struck with the Taliban, the formation of a “new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government” would be determined through negotiations between the two Afghan sides.

President Ashraf Ghani’s government was elected in 2019 for a five-year term but the Taliban rejected the election.

But relentless violence is over-shadowing the bid to find peace.

Government officials have in recent weeks accused the Taliban of a string of high-profile murders, including of bureaucrats and journalists, and bomb attacks.

The Taliban have rejected some of the accusations but at the same time, they have made gains against government forces in fighting in various parts of the country.

The level of violence has prompted occasional intervention by Western forces.

On Monday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said US forces had conducted airstrikes against insurgents, terming it a violation of the agreement between the two sides.

A spokesman for US forces, Colonel Sonny Leggett, said the strikes were defensive and not a violation of the agreement, and he called for a reduction in violence.

European officials have also urged both sides to reduce hostilities and move quickly towards a settlement.

The United States has been scaling back its presence in Afghanistan nearly 20 years after it intervened with its allies to overthrow the Taliban in the weeks after September 11, 2001, attacks on US cities.

Afghan security officials expect the size of the US force to dwindle to about 2,500 troops early this year.

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