Effort to revive Afghan peace talks begins in Pakistan

An Afghan policeman stands guard at the site of an explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan, in this January 4, 2016 file photo. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

By Asad Hashim and Tommy Wilkes ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Delegates from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States held talks on Monday to try to resurrect efforts to end nearly 15 years of bloodshed in Afghanistan, even as fighting with Taliban insurgents intensifies. The officials met in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, to launch a process that they hope will lead to negotiations with the Taliban, who are fighting to re-impose their strict brand of Islamist rule and did not attend Monday's talks. The Pakistani prime minister's foreign affairs adviser, Sartaj Aziz, said the primary goal should be to convince the Taliban to come to the table and consider giving up violence. "It is therefore important that preconditions are not attached to the start of the negotiation process. This, we argue, will be counterproductive," he said. "The threat of use of military action against irreconcilables cannot precede the offer of talks to all the groups." Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Karzai and Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry were joined by Richard Olson, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and General Anthony Rock, the top U.S. defense representative in Pakistan, as well as China's special envoy on Afghan affairs, Deng Xijun. "Participants emphasized the immediate need for direct talks between representatives of the Government of Afghanistan and representatives from Taliban groups in a peace process that aims to preserve Afghanistan’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity," the Pakistani Foreign Ministry said in a statement. It said the group would discuss a road map at its next meeting, on Jan. 18 in Kabul. YEAR OF BLOOD Last year was one of the bloodiest on record in Afghanistan, following the withdrawal of most foreign troops at the end of 2014. In recent months, the Taliban have won territory in the southern province of Helmand, briefly captured the northern city of Kunduz, and carried out a series of suicide attacks in the capital, underlining how hard Afghan government forces are finding fighting on their own. Peace efforts stalled last year after the Taliban announced that their founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had been dead for two years, throwing the militant group into disarray. The Taliban, who were ousted from power in 2001, remain split on whether to participate in talks. Senior members of the movement said last week that Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour's faction had shown signs of warming to the idea, and other groups were considering it. But a splinter group headed by Mullah Mohammad Rasool Akhund, which rejects Mansour's authority, has dismissed any talks under the mediation of the United States or China or of Pakistan, which observers say has significant sway among Taliban commanders holed up near its border with Afghanistan. "We have a very clear-cut stance about peace talks: all the foreign occupying forces would need to be withdrawn," Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, Rasool's deputy, told Reuters on Monday. "The issue is between the Afghans, and only the Afghans can resolve it. We would not allow any third force to mediate." (additional reporting by Jibran Ahmed in Peshawar; Writing by Tommy Wilkes; Editing by Robert Birsel and Kevin Liffey)