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Talks With Taliban Expected By Early March


The fourth round of four-way peace talks took place in Kabul on February 23.

Members of the Afghan government and Taliban representatives are expected to meet by the first week in March in Islamabad for the first direct talks since peace process broke down last year.

After meeting in Kabul on February 23, the Quadrilateral Coordination Group -- comprising officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States, and China -- "expressed strong support for the upcoming direct talks between the Government of Afghanistan and authorized representatives of the Taliban and other groups."

The first round of direct peace talks is expected to take place by the first week of March in the Pakistani capital, according to a joint statement released by the Afghan Foreign Ministry.

Pakistani Army Gen. Raheel Sharif met on February 22 with officials from Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office, to prepare for the following day's meeting, the fourth in a series of quadrilateral summits aimed at laying the foundation for proper peace talks.

However, the Taliban have faced factional infighting since the announcement last summer of the death of the movement's founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, some two years earlier. The Taliban have yet to indicate whether they will participate in any talks with the government in Kabul, back by the West.

Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the new leader, has made clear several preconditions to any talks, such as the withdrawal of all foreign forces, while a breakaway faction that opposes him has rejected any negotiations.

Officials in Kabul, however, have voiced hopes that at least some members of the movement and other affiliated groups could be persuaded to join.

"I think there's a lot of Taliban that want to come," the outgoing commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, said earlier this month. "That's what's going to be hard, to get all the right people to the table."

The most recent talks in Kabul took place in an atmosphere of continuing violence and increasing military pressure from the Taliban, who have ramped up their insurgency since the withdrawal of most international troops from combat in 2014.

Afghan officials confirmed in recent days that troops had pulled out of two key districts in Helmand, leaving the whole northern half of the province in the insurgents' hands.

The insurgents have also continued their suicide bombing campaign. An attack on a clinic in Parwan Province, north of Kabul, killed fourteen people on February 22.

With reporting by James Mackenzie for Reuters.

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