Afghan leaders begin peace summit in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Dozens of Afghan political leaders attended a peace conference in neighboring Pakistan on Saturday to pave the way for further Afghan-to-Afghan dialogue.

The conference is to be followed by meetings and working sessions over the next two days, all of which come in the run-up to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Pakistan next week.

Ghani, his political opponents and a broad swath of Afghan civil society have been holding meetings in recent days with the United States’ special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who continues to press for talks between the Afghan government, the opposition and the Taliban.

There are no representatives of the Taliban at Saturday’s conference, held near the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

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However, attending the conference is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who struck a peace deal with Ghani’s government and was taken off a U.S. terrorist list. That peace deal was touted as a blueprint for an agreement with the Taliban, although the insurgents dismissed Hekmatyar as a spent force with no military might.

Still, at the outset of Saturday’s meeting, Hekmatyar urged his fellow Afghans to press for the Taliban’s demand for a quick and full withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan.

Washington has been holding talks with the Taliban to find a negotiated exit to its 17-year engagement in Afghanistan. On Saturday, Khalilzad was in Doha where the Taliban maintain a political office, but it still wasn’t clear when he would meet again with the militants, who control or wield significant influence in nearly half of the country.

The Taliban have refused to sit with government representatives but say they will sit with any Afghan, even a government official, but as an ordinary Afghan and not as a government representative. An earlier attempt at Afghan-to-Afghan talks was scuttled after neither side could agree on participants.

Among the figures in attendance at Saturday’s conference in Pakistan were the head of the Afghan government-sponsored high peace council, Mohammad Karim Khalili, as well as the leader of the powerful Jamiat-e-Islami political party, Ustad Atta Mohammad Noor, and a current presidential candidate, Haneef Atmar, who is a former national security adviser.

The event was backed by the Pakistani government and organized by two think tanks, the Lahore Center for Peace Research and the South Asian Strategic Stability Institute.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi opened the conference by saying his country will continue its efforts toward peace and stability in Afghanistan.

The Afghan leaders are also scheduled to hold a meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan during their visit.

Also on Saturday, Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani arrived Islamabad on a two-day visit.

He is visiting Pakistan for the first time in four years. The Foreign Affairs Ministry said the Qatari leader will hold talks with Khan and meet with President Arif Alvi. It was not clear whether the Qatari leader’s visit was timed to coincide with the Afghan leaders peace conference in Islamabad or was a coincidence.

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