Afghan and Taliban officials will hold two days of “reconciliation” talks in Qatar, the Gulf nation’s state news agency reported Saturday, although both sides sought to downplay expectations from the meeting.
The official Qatar News Agency did not identify the officials taking part in the talks, which it said began Saturday, citing Foreign Ministry official Yousif al-Sada.
“The dialogue will be through open discussions about the Afghan reconciliation between all parties in Afghanistan,” the agency said.
In a statement, the Taliban earlier identified eight people they said would take part in the talks on their behalf. However, they said the discussions “should not be misconstrued as peace or negotiation talks.”
“It is worth mentioning that all participants of this conference attend in an individual capacity, no one participates as representatives for any government or party,” the statement said. “Since this is a research conference, therefore, every participant gives their opinion on a range of issues.”
Afghan presidential spokesman Ajmal Abidy said members of the country’s High Peace Council would attend the talks in Doha in their “personal capacity only.”
“They will meet face to face,” Abidy told The Associated Press. “Nothing is going on. We have no expectations.”
Previous efforts to launch peace talks have failed. In 2013, the Taliban opened an office in Qatar for the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” It also hoisted the same white flag flown during the Taliban’s five-year rule of Afghanistan that ended with the 2001 American-led invasion. The raising of the flag sparked immediate outrage from then-President Hamid Karzai and the U.S., derailing talks and eventually leading the Taliban to shutter the office.
While the office remains closed, Qatar has become a place to open back-channel communication with the Taliban. Qatari intermediaries helped U.S. officials negotiate for the release of captive U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl last year, American officials have said. President Barack Obama sent five Taliban detainees from the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar as part of the exchange for one year, although they would then be free to leave.
The U.S. Embassy in Doha had no immediate comment on the Afghan negotiations.
Qatar relishes its role as a meeting ground for often thorny negotiations – a position helped by its willingness to maintain channels to a broad range of parties, including Islamist groups. It previously hosted peace talks between Sudanese officials and Darfur rebel groups, and more recently hosted gatherings of Syrian opposition groups fighting to oust President Bashar Assad.
The country also plays a supporting role in the U.S.-led military coalition conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria by allowing forces to use its vast al-Udeid air base.
Current Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, elected last year, has pushed for peace talks with the Taliban as U.S. and NATO forces said they ended their combat mission in the country at the start of this year. Casualties among Afghan security forces have spiked since, adding new urgency to Ghani’s hoped-for peace talks.
Associated Press writers Lynne O'Donnell and Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Jon Gambrell in Cairo contributed to this report.