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May 16, 2021

Warring Afghan sides discuss peace talks

May 16, 2021

KABUL: Negotiators from the Afghan government and Taliban teams met Friday to discuss speeding up stalled peace talks, officials from both sides said, as a deadly mosque blast shattered the calm of a holiday ceasefire in Afghanistan.

Despite unprecedented talks opening in September in Doha, the two warring sides have struggled to make headway, with violence escalating in Afghanistan as the United States pulls out the last of its troops.

“A meeting was held in Doha between the delegations of both negotiating sides,” the Afghan government’s peace team tweeted.

The parties “emphasized speeding up the peace talks in Doha,” it added.

In a similar statement posted to twitter, the Taliban said “both sides agreed to continue the talks after (Eidul-Fitr),” which ends Saturday.

A three-day ceasefire agreed by the warring sides came into force Thursday to mark Eid holiday, after weeks of deadly violence.

But the calm was broken by a blast at a mosque on the outskirts of the Afghan capital, which killed 12 people including the Imam leading Friday prayers. No group has so far claimed the attack and the Taliban denied responsibility.

A spokesperson for the interior ministry said the explosives were placed in the mosque ahead of the prayers.

Afghans have been cautiously enjoying the rare respite from violence, only the fourth such truce in the two decades-long conflict.

Ceasefires in the past have largely held, in what is widely thought to be an exercise by the Taliban leadership to prove it has control over the myriad factions across the country that make up the hardline movement. As violence has soared, including a wave of targeted killings on Afghanistan’s educated class, international efforts have been made to jump start the talks - including a one day conference in Moscow in March attended by representatives on both sides, as well as Russia, the United States, China and Pakistan.

Turkey was also scheduled to hold an Afghanistan conference in late April but it was postponed indefinitely because the Taliban declined to attend.

The United States, Russia and other mediators want to see some form of transitional government take power in Afghanistan involving the Taliban, but President Ashraf Ghani has insisted leaders can only be chosen at the ballot box.

Having made enormous gains on the battleground, the Taliban appear to have little to gain from either strategy.

Washington has vowed to end America’s longest war but missed a deadline earlier this month to withdraw all of its troops, as agreed with the Taliban in return for security guarantees and a promise to launch talks with the Afghan government, who were cut out of the deal. President Joe Biden pushed back the date to September 11 - 20 years after the US invaded Afghanistan and ousted the hardline Taliban.

Meanwhile, the United States has completed its withdrawal from Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan, once the second largest military base in the country for US forces, officials said Friday.Kandahar province was the birthplace of the Taliban and has in recent months seen intense clashes between the resurgent militants and Afghan forces.

US airstrikes were launched from the base just last week to help Afghan forces push back a major Taliban offensive.

“They have not officially handed over the base to us but I can confirm they left the base Wednesday,” said Khoja Yaya Alawi, a spokesperson for the Afghan army in Kandahar.

“They have handed over all the facilities to Afghan forces,” added Massoud Pashtun, the director of Kandahar Airport.

An official handover is expected to take place after Eid holiday, which ends Saturday, they said.

An Afghan army officer at Kandahar Airfield, who asked not to be named, told AFP that government forces would be left exposed by the pullout.

“It is now going to be very difficult for us to conduct operations,” he said. “Our aircraft can’t fly at night so the night operations are going to be difficult”.

At its height, the airfield was the second largest base for the US and international troops and the first airfield where the US forces were stationed after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

It was also the centre of the biggest drone operation by US Special Forces in Afghanistan.

The military has for years been steadily decreasing its presence there, accelerated after Washington struck a deal with the Taliban last year to completely withdraw from Afghanistan in return for security guarantees.

However, the US missed the May 1 deadline, extending it to September 11 - a move which angered the Taliban.

Although fighting between the US forces and the Taliban has stopped since the landmark agreement last year, battles rage daily between Afghan government forces and the militants, and have intensified since the missed deadline.

The Taliban and Afghan forces are currently in the middle of a three-day ceasefire which has offered a respite for Afghans across the country as they celebrate Eid holiday.

The Pentagon Tuesday said it had so far completed between six and 12 percent of its final withdrawal.

The following day, the Afghan defence ministry announced that it had taken control of Camp Morehead, a US base in Kabul, where American troops trained the Afghan military. The camp will now be used by Afghan Special Forces.