Afghan gov’t delegation meets Taliban in Iran

Tehran hosts the first significant peace talks in months in a previously unannounced meeting that comes as US forces leave.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, centre, talks to delegations of Afghanistan government, left, and Taliban at the Iranian foreign ministry office in Tehran [Iranian Foreign Ministry Office handout/EPA]

An Afghan government delegation has met Taliban representatives in Tehran, the Iranian foreign ministry says, as the armed group makes significant advances amid a pullout of US troops.

The high-level peace talks between the warring Afghan sides follow months-old discussions in Qatar that have been stalled by a diplomatic impasse and escalating violence.

A joint statement released after the talks on Thursday said the Afghan government and Taliban agree that “war is not the solution to the Afghanistan problem” and that all efforts must be director toward achieving a peaceful political solution.

The two sides also agreed to continue talks on the specific mechanisms of achieving lasting peace and establishing an Islamic state at a later meeting whose location or date was not mentioned.

“Both sides condemn attacks that target people’s homes, mosques and hospitals and lead to destruction, and also condemn the destruction of public institutions and call for the punishment of the perpetrators,” the statement said, referring to talks hosted by Tehran as an opportunity to strengthen a political solution.

Zarif, left, talks to delegations of Taliban, right, and the Afghanistan government, not in picture at the Iranian foreign ministry office in Tehran [Iranian Foreign Ministry Office handout/ EPA]

In another statement on Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif thanked both the sides for the meeting and prioritising the Afghan people.

“Bravery in peace is more important than bravery in war because for peace, one must sacrifice and set aside maximum demands and consider the other side’s demands,” he said.

Zarif called on both sides to utilise the opportunity to talk and put an end to the fighting for the benefit of the Afghan people. He stressed that Iran will always be ready to facilitate more talks.

While opening the talks on Wednesday, Zarif had welcomed the departure of its US foe from its eastern borders but warned: “Today, the people and political leaders of Afghanistan must make difficult decisions for the future of their country.”

Deputy chief negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai headed the Taliban delegation, while former Vice President Younus Qanooni represented the government, the Iranian ministry said.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed Stanikzai’s visit to Tehran to “discuss issues of mutual interest”.

But he made no reference to any Afghan government delegation, saying only that Stanikzai was holding talks with “some Afghan personalities”.

“They will discuss and exchange opinions on the current situation of the country and finding a solution through talks,” Mujahid added.

This combination of pictures shows Taliban deputy negotiator Abbas Stanikzai, left, and Afghanitan’s former Vice President Younus Qanooni [File: Karim Jaafar and Shah Marai/AFP]

In his opening remarks, the Iranian foreign minister hailed the “defeat” of US troops after 20 years of war that had caused “extensive damage” but warned of the “unfavourable results of continuing the conflict”.

Iran and Afghanistan share deep cultural ties and a 945km (587 miles) border. Iran hosts several million Afghan refugees and migrant workers and is deeply concerned about the intensifying turmoil in the neighbouring country.

Amid the spectre of another civil war in Afghanistan, fears have grown in Iran over a new wave of Afghans seeking refuge in the country, which is already struggling to stem worsening poverty under tough US sanctions.

Zarif appealed to the warring parties in Afghanistan to return to the negotiating table, calling “commitment to political solutions the best choice for Afghanistan’s leaders and political movements”.

“We are proud to have stood alongside our noble Afghan brothers and sisters during the jihad against the foreign occupiers,” he added, in a video excerpt of his speech released by the ministry.

The US, which has tense relations with Iran but briefly worked with Tehran on Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks, was circumspect about the talks.

Afghanistan’s neighbours “have a stake in Afghanistan’s future” and can help “promote the cause of peace”, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington, DC.

“Afghanistan’s neighbours need to play a constructive role. What Iran is trying to do, or is in the process of trying to do by hosting this meeting, may well be constructive. I think the jury is still out,” Price said.

On Tuesday, Afghan authorities pledged to retake all the districts lost to the Taliban as the pullout of US forces neared completion.

Hundreds of commandos were deployed to counter the Taliban’s blistering offensive in the north, a day after more than 1,000 government soldiers fled into neighbouring Tajikistan.

But on Wednesday, the Taliban attacked the Badghis provincial capital Qalat-i-Naw, the first regional seat they have entered since the launch of their latest offensive, local officials said.

The group already controls all of the surrounding countryside in the western province.

The US Central Command meanwhile announced that the American withdrawal from the country, ordered in April by President Joe Biden, was now more than 90 percent complete, underscoring that Afghan forces are increasingly on their own in the battle with the Taliban.

Zarif also received India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar later in the day, with the two discussing the Afghan talks and other issues, according to Iran’s foreign ministry.

Jaishankar met Iran’s President-elect Ebrahim Raisi next and conveyed a message of congratulations from India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, state TV said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies