By Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - A Washington-backed Afghan peace conference in Turkey has been postponed due to the Taliban's non-participation, three sources told Reuters on Tuesday.
The meeting was scheduled for April 24 to fast-track an agreement between Taliban insurgents and the Afghan government following Washington's announcement that foreign troops would leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11.
"The Istanbul meeting is not happening on the given date because the Taliban refused to attend," a senior Afghan government official told Reuters.
The postponement was confirmed by two other sources, including one official whose country is involved in the planning process. There was no immediate revised date.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey, one of the hosts of the talks, later confirmed that they had been put off until after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends around mid-May.
An Afghan government spokesman declined comment on the matter.
Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem told Reuters in a text message that the group did not have any information about the postponement, and that he could not say anything about future dates for the conference post Ramadan.
The Taliban had earlier refused to attend any summits until all foreign forces were pulled out of Afghanistan. The United States and Taliban last year agreed that all foreign forces would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by May 1 - a date that was pushed back last week by U.S. President Joe Biden.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price did not confirm the postponement but said broader diplomatic efforts will continue: "We've always been clear, Istanbul was not a replacement for Doha".
Taliban and Afghan government negotiators began peace talks last year in the Qatari capital of Doha, but progress was slow and violence continued to escalate in Afghanistan.
Washington was attempting to speed up the process, which included pushing for the summit in Turkey that was to be attended by over 20 countries and global bodies.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said earlier on Tuesday that he could not confirm if the conference had been postponed.
"The United Nations, along with the co‑conveners, Qatar, Turkey, we're continuing to engage with representatives of both the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban on ways to strengthen and add impetus to the intra‑Afghan negotiations," Dujarric told reporters.
The U.N. special envoy for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, was in Doha last week to discuss with Afghan parties "the best way the international community can support them in making progress on their negotiations toward a just and durable political settlement," Dujarric said.
"Our focus will continue to be on progress in intra‑Afghan negotiations, which is a critical part of the way forward."
A leading U.S. general voiced "grave doubts" on Tuesday about the Taliban's reliability as a negotiating partner for U.S. and Afghan diplomats after the U.S. military's withdrawal from America's longest war.
The Islamist Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, when they were ousted by U.S.-led forces. Since then, they have waged a long-running insurgency and still control wide swathes of territory.
(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi in Kabul, Humeyra Pamuk in Washington, Michelle Nichols in New York and Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Sam Holmes)