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Tashkent Conference Backs Afghan Government's Peace Offer

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev (left) meets with U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon (center) in Tashkent on March 26.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev (left) meets with U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon (center) in Tashkent on March 26.

Following talks in Uzbekistan, more than 20 countries and organizations have declared their support for direct talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban to end the 16-year conflict in Afghanistan.

A joint declaration issued at the end of the March 27 meeting in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, noted the signatories' "strong backing for the National Unity Government's offer to launch direct talks with the Taliban, without any preconditions."

They also called upon the Taliban to "accept this offer for a peace process that is Afghan-led and Afghan-owned."

The conference was attended by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, European Union foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini, and a number of foreign ministers, including Sergei Lavrov of Russia, Wang Yi of China, and Turkey's Mevlut Cavusoglu. The United States was represented by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon.

Earlier this month, Ghani offered to allow the Taliban to establish itself as a political party and said he would work to remove sanctions on the militant group, among other incentives, if it joined the government in peace negotiations.

In return, the militants would have to recognize the Kabul government and respect the rule of law.

But the Taliban has so far ruled out direct talks with Kabul and insisted it would only negotiate with the United States, which it calls a "foreign occupying force." The Taliban also says that NATO forces must withdraw before negotiations can begin.

The United States has refused to withdraw troops and insisted that the Afghan government must play a lead role in peace negotiations.

Meanwhile, representatives of both Washington and NATO have accused Russia of supplying military aid to Taliban, which ruled over much of Afghanistan from 1996 until it was toppled following a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, after the September 11 attacks.

Moscow has rejected the claims.

While the Tashkent meeting did not lead to any breakthrough, it highlighted the potential reemergence of Uzbekistan as a diplomatic player in the region.

During the conference, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev offered to host peace negotiations between Afghanistan's government and the Taliban.

"We stand ready to create all necessary conditions, at any stage of the peace process, to arrange on the territory of Uzbekistan direct talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban movement," he said.

The Central Asian state of 32 million people is seeking to raise its international profile as part of Mirziyoev's campaign to open up Uzbekistan and attract foreign investment after decades of isolation and economic stagnation.

Mirziyoev took over predominantly Muslim Uzbekistan after the death in 2016 of authoritarian President Islam Karimov, who had ruled with an iron fist since the Soviet era.

Tashkent's ties with the West were strained under Karimov who was often criticized over his government's human rights abuses.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and TASS