Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said his government has formed a 12-strong negotiating team to seek a peace agreement with the Taliban, as he laid out what he called a "roadmap" for the talks.
"We seek a peace agreement in which the Afghan Taliban would be included in a democratic and inclusive society," Ghani told an international conference on Afghanistan in Geneva on November 28.
Earlier this month, U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad held talks with the Taliban in Qatar as the administration of President Donald Trump stepped up efforts to settle the Afghan conflict after more than 17 years of war.
The Taliban have long refused U.S. demands to directly negotiate with the Western-backed government in Kabul, which has struggled to counter attacks from the militant group since the withdrawal of most NATO combat troops in 2014.
The government has formed “the required bodies and mechanisms to pursue a peace agreement, Ghani said, adding,” We are now moving ahead into the next chapter of the peace process."
Ghani said the 12-person negotiating team, comprised of both women and men, will be led by his chief of staff, Abdul Salam Rahimi.
The president also listed several principles that he said must form the backbone of any peace settlement.
These include respecting Afghanistan's constitution and its provisions on women, as well as the rejection of interference in Afghanistan’s domestic affairs by foreign "terrorist" and criminal groups.
The president stressed that the first year of the peace process must include steps to build trust between the former warring sides.
He also described Afghanistan’s presidential elections scheduled for April 2019 as “key to successful peace negotiations” because the Afghan people need “an elected government with a mandate to obtain ratification, implement the peace agreement and lead the societal reconciliation process."
Officials at Afghanistan Independent Election Commission (IEC) this week said they were considering delaying the vote, citing “economic, security and weather situations.”
In a message read to the Geneva conference, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said there was “a rare opportunity to move to direct peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban."
"We must not miss it," Guterres added.
The European Union foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, welcomed Ghani’s peace plan, saying, "It is time for concrete talks about peace to begin."
The U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, David Hale, urged all sides to "seize this opportunity: to move toward peace.”
"All of us need to facilitate the inter-Afghan dialogue," said Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who expressed concerns about the drug trade across the region's borders.
Zarif also said the "presence of foreign military forces has never brought stability in our region and has historically provided a recruiting ground for extremists."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow hoped for an end of Afghanistan’s “fratricidal war" and voiced concerns over militant attacks by the Islamic State extremist group in the country.
On November 27, the first day of the two-day Geneva conference, the European Union announced 474 million euros ($535 million) in financial aid for Afghanistan.
It said the new funding would go toward reforms in the public sector, health, justice, and migration and displacement issues.
With reporting by AFP, AP, Reuters, and dpa