ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — The United Nations, Turkey and Qatar announced Tuesday that a high-level conference between Afghanistan’s warring sides will take place in Istanbul later this month. The meeting is aimed at accelerating peace negotiations and achieving a political settlement to decades of conflict.
Their joint statement said the conference will take place between April 24 and May 4. The three co-conveners said they are “committed to supporting a sovereign, independent and unified Afghanistan.”
The surprise announcement came a day after a Taliban spokesman said the insurgent group would not attend a peace conference that had been tentatively planned to take place in Turkey later this week, putting U.S. efforts for a peace plan in jeopardy.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric, responding to questions about the Taliban announcement, said: “My understanding is that there are still internal deliberations going on within the Taliban.”
“An invitation was extended to them,” he said. “We very much hope to see them participate.”
The Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 by a U.S.-led coalition for harboring Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America. A peace deal that Washington brokered with the Taliban and signed in February last year led to talks in Qatar with the government that began last September.
In the agreement with the Taliban, the Trump administration committed to removing the last of its troops from Afghanistan by May 1, but the Afghan government blames the Taliban for rising violence and for not abiding by its provisions.
President Joe Biden announced Wednesday the withdrawal will be delayed by more than four months. Biden has said he is committed to ending America’s longest war and set a new goal of Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, for the withdrawal.
The Taliban has balked at reports that American troops would remain after May 1 and has warned of “consequences” if Washington reneged on the deal and the withdrawal timeline.
Dujarric said there were widespread consultations at many levels involving many parties on the dates and timing of the conference, which follows a number of initiatives in the last months.
The U.N., Turkey and Qatar said the overriding objective of the high-level meeting is to “accelerate and complement the ongoing intra-Afghan negotiations” that have been taking place in Doha, Qatar and to achieve a “just and durable political settlement.”
The Turkish Foreign Ministry said the conference agenda was the “subject of extensive consultations with the Afghan parties.”
“The conference will focus on helping the negotiating parties reach a set of shared, foundational principles that reflect an agreed vision for a future Afghanistan, a roadmap to a future political settlement and an end to the conflict,” the ministry said.
According to a U.N. diplomat, high-level representatives from 21 countries have been invited to the conference along with European Union High Representative Josep Borrell, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, and Organization for Islamic Cooperation Secretary General Youssef Al-Othaimeen.
The 21 invited countries are Australia, Azerbaijan, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, Norway, United Kingdom, United States, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the list has not yet been made public.
Dujarric said the conference is expected to be partly in person and partly virtual. Details are still being worked out, but U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is expected to kick it off, he said.
Under the Taliban, women were not allowed to go to school, work outside the home or leave their house without a male escort. And though they still face many challenges in the male-dominated society, Afghan women have increasingly stepped into powerful positions in numerous fields — and many fear the current negotiations could bargain away their gains.
The Taliban have promised women could attend school, work and participate in politics but stressed that would be allowed in keeping with Islamic principles — without saying what that might mean.
Dujarric stressed the U.N.’s commitment to the Afghan people and their right to “basic democratic principles and a government that reflects their wishes.”
“We are committed to ensuring that the gains that have been made are not lost, and that is especially true for women in Afghanistan,” he said.