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Peace Talks Involving Taliban Resume Despite Deadly Attack

Death toll in Sunday’s central Afghanistan suicide bombing – claimed by the Islamist group – hits 14, with at least 183 wounded

[Islamabad] – Talks between the Taliban and various Afghan civilian representatives resumed on Monday in Qatar, a day after being suspended following a deadly suicide-vehicle attack carried out by the Taliban in Ghazni, Afghanistan.

A second track of talks scheduled to begin on Sunday in Qatar’s capital Doha – this one between the United States and the Taliban – remained suspended.

At least 14 people, including eight intelligence officials, were killed in the Sunday morning central Afghanistan bombing, with some 183 others, including 50 children, wounded, Afghani health official Hidayat Ullah Chamkani told The Media Line.

The Taliban took responsibility for the car bombing attack near the headquarters of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) in a statement issued by Zabiullah Mujahid, the Islamist group’s Afghan-based spokesman for military affairs.

Zareen Khan, a Ghazni-based intelligence official, told the Media Line that scores of children had been on their way to school when the vehicle blew up near the headquarters.

Despite the talks in Doha, the Taliban have intensified their attacks on Afghan forces.

The bombing near the building of the NDS, Afghanistan’s primary intelligence agency, came a week after a similar attack in Kabul, which left 10 people dead and more than 100 wounded, including children.

Sunday’s attack took place just a few hours before members of the Taliban’s political team were scheduled to participate in two days of dialogue in Doha with Afghani civilian groups. The talks are being sponsored by Germany and Qatar.

Suhail Shaheen, a Doha-based political spokesperson for the Taliban, told reporters there that the incident in Ghazni would be investigated, and those responsible prosecuted.

In a statement, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani strongly condemned the attack, calling it a “barbaric and gruesome act of terror.” He said the Taliban “must understand that targeting civilians and children” should give them no place at peace talks.

“While they are negotiating in Qatar, they murder innocent civilians, including women and children, in cold blood, in Afghanistan,” Ghani said.

Markus Potzel, Germany’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, wrote in a tweet that he was “deeply troubled by the heinous attack in Ghazni. This endless carnage must stop. This is why we have to redouble our efforts to find a path to peace in Afghanistan.”

US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad also condemned the attack, saying that “it is unfathomable to endanger children in this way. Peace has never been more urgent and is the only path to ending terror and violence.”

As a result of the attack in Ghanzi, both Khalizad and Shaheen said the talks in Doha would be suspended for two days, although one of the tracks, the so-called Intra-Afghan Dialogue, resumed on Monday.

The Taliban have repeatedly refused to participate in direct talks with the Ghani government, although they agreed to take part in the German-and Qatari-sponsored dialogue after Ghani visited Pakistan at the end of last month in an effort to repair ties between Kabul and Islamabad, and to enlist the Pakistani government’s help in encouraging the Taliban to engage in dialogue.

Pakistan is a major ally of the Taliban.

In an interview with The Media Line, Michael Kugelman, a senior analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said Ghani’s trip to Islamabad was “a very encouraging sign. The chances of a successful peace process increase if Pakistan and Afghanistan can get along better than they typically do. The US hopes that Pakistan can play a constructive role in the peace process by helping bring the Taliban to the table and convincing it to agree to a ceasefire.”

However, Kugelman was pessimistic about the ultimate success of the peace efforts.

“It’s going to be hard to convince the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire and to an intra-Afghan dialogue, no matter who may be trying to do the convincing,” he said. “The Taliban has little incentive to stop fighting a war that it thinks it’s winning and [to] talk to an Afghan government that it rejects. I don’t think that anyone, in Islamabad or Washington, has the leverage to get them to change their minds.”

Naeem ul Haque, political advisor to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, told a conference in Islamabad that Khan would meet with Taliban leaders in the near future in an attempt to push the peace process forward, but did not give an exact date.

Khan recently “reaffirmed Pakistan’s commitment to supporting the Afghan peace process.” He will visit the United States in mid-July and meet with President Donald Trump to discuss the situation in Afghanistan.

Israr Rajput, an Islamabad-based regional security expert, told The Media Line that relations between Pakistan and the US have been tense ever since Trump, in a tweet, accused Pakistan of deception and providing a safe haven for the Taliban. Rajput said Khan hoped to improve the situation between the two countries by demonstrating the key role Pakistan could play in bringing stability and peace to Afghanistan, thus making it possible for the US withdraw its troops after 18 years of war.