First Formal Afghan Peace Talks Since 2001 End Positively

Officials from Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban agreed to keep talking about peace after their first formal meeting since the U.S.-led war began in 2001.

Pakistan, which hosted the meeting in the hill town of Murree near the capital on Tuesday, said another meeting would take place after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The White House welcomed the discussions, which were also attended by representatives from the U.S. and China.

“The participants agreed to continue talks to create an environment conducive for peace and reconciliation process,” Pakistan’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Wednesday. Each side would be sincere and look to build trust, it said.

The meetings raise hopes for a political solution to a conflict that has killed almost 100,000 people since 2001 and cost more than $680 billion. The involvement of Pakistan, which has close ties with Taliban leadership, signals a new level of seriousness to any peace efforts.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has tried to persuade Pakistan to arrange peace talks with the Taliban since he took office last year. Pakistan has long been accused of nurturing the Taliban and using them as proxies to destabilize Afghanistan and maintain Pakistan’s geopolitical interests.

The Afghan government “will speak during negotiations from a strong position,” Ghani said in a statement on Tuesday night. The world recognizes that Afghan forces “aren’t weak and can’t be defeated,” he said.

Parliament Attack

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called the meeting a breakthrough and warned other countries to avoid derailing the process, state-run Radio Pakistan reported.

The talks come as the Taliban make military gains in certain districts. Less than three weeks ago, Taliban militants rammed a car full of explosives into the main gates of the Afghan parliament while it was in session, sending lawmakers running for the exits. Five people died.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said by phone he was unaware of Tuesday’s meeting and couldn’t immediately comment. Unofficial talks have taken place previously in locations such as Qatar, China and Dubai. The latest took place in Oslo mid-June. The Taliban officially distanced itself from those talks.

Abdullah Abdullah, who came second to Ghani in the presidential vote and is now second-in-charge, said the government would defend the current constitution in the talks, according to Tolonews Television. The Taliban has long called for the amendment of Afghanistan’s western-style constitution.

Cease-fire Essential

A cease-fire is a prerequisite for any progress, said Abdullah Ahmadzai, country representative of the Asia Foundation in Kabul and a former election commission member. That will be difficult because fighters are spread across Afghanistan and Pakistan, he said.

“Even if there is no unified approach, but there is an agreement, there will be a reduction in insurgent activity which will benefit the country,” Ahmadzai said.

An end to the violence would help President Barack Obama meet a pledge to end America’s longest war before he leaves office in January 2017. After concluding combat operations in December, he’s already slowed down the withdrawal. In March, he agreed to keep about 4,000 more troops in Afghanistan by year’s end than originally planned.

The war in Afghanistan resulted in almost 92,000 deaths and almost 100,000 injuries between 2001 and 2014, according to a Brown University report released in June. That toll includes Afghan and foreign civilians, foreign forces, and insurgents.

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