DOHA, Qatar: A senior delegation of the Afghan government and Taliban representatives have met in Doha for high-stakes negotiations as violence escalates on the ground in Afghanistan.
The two sides have been meeting on and off for months in the Qatari capital but the talks have lost momentum as a string of battlefield gains by the armed group has coincided with foreign forces finalising their withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The government delegation is comprised of several high-ranking officials, including former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.
Its reported aim is to support the government’s negotiating team in terms of speeding up the stalled talks.
“During his visit, Abdullah Abdullah will discuss important and crucial issues with Taliban representatives,” Fraidoon Kwazoon, the Afghan government delegation spokesman told news agencies.
“The solution to the conflict in Afghanistan lies in negotiations, and peace can be reached through dialogue,” he said.
For his part, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem said the group has “repeatedly confirmed its readiness for dialogue and negotiations”, adding that the problems can “only be solved by dialogue”.
“But the Afghan government needs to also show the same commitment,” Naeem said.
“They need to show the right and sincere determination when it comes to negotiations to end these problems.”
The Taliban has capitalised on the last stages of the withdrawal of US and other foreign troops from Afghanistan to launch a series of lightning offensives across the country.
Afghan forces clashed on Friday with Taliban fighters in Spin Boldak after launching an operation to retake the key southern border crossing with Pakistan.
The route is one of the main trade and travel routes between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and is an important source of revenue for the Western-backed government in Kabul.
The battle at the southern border follows weeks of intensifying fighting across Afghanistan, with the Taliban pressing multiple offensives and overrunning dozens of districts at a staggering rate.
The group has in recent weeks captured border crossings with Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan while also tightening their grip in the north.
The armed group now controls more than 50% of the country and that their grasp is getting “ever closer” to the capital.
As fighting raged over large swathes of Afghanistan, a war of words was also heating up between Kabul and Islamabad after the Afghan vice president accused the Pakistani military of providing close air support to Taliban in certain areas.
Pakistan strongly denied the claim, with a foreign ministry statement saying the country “took necessary measures within its territory to safeguard our own troops and population”.
Islamabad had touted a conference of regional leaders to address the spiralling violence.
Instead, it announced it would delay the summit until after the upcoming Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, clearing the way for the Doha gathering.
Afghanistan’s southern border has long been a flashpoint in relations with its eastern neighbour.
Foreign troops have been in Afghanistan for nearly 20 years following the US-led invasion launched in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
They have appeared largely out of the picture in recent months, but fears are growing that Afghan forces will be overwhelmed without the vital air support they provide.
The speed and scale of the Taliban onslaught have caught many by surprise, with analysts saying it appears aimed at forcing the government to negotiate on the group’s terms or suffer complete military defeat.
Russia’s foreign minister said on Friday that the US mission in Afghanistan had “failed”.