ISLAMABAD — Afghanistan peace negotiators and leaders are set to meet with the Taliban and other rebel groups in France on Thursday to discuss ways to end the conflict in Afghanistan as NATO troops prepare to withdraw in 2014. .
France is hosting the Afghan conference -- only days after completing its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The meeting will be at an undisclosed location near Paris, and media coverage is not permitted.
This will be the first time that officials of the Taliban rebel movement, members of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council and senior leaders from the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance will sit across a table from one another to discuss their country’s future.
The Peace Council, established in September 2010 by President Hamid Karzai, is attempting to open talks with Taliban insurgents to persuade them to end the violence and join the political reconciliation process.
Fugitive Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami group, which is fighting NATO-led coalition forces alongside the Taliban, is attending this week’s meeting in France. Its delegation is led by Ghairat Baheer, Hikmatyar's son-in-law.
Baheer says his group and the Taliban have agreed to take part in the two-day discussions because they admire the French government for withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan.
“We believe that in the presence of the foreign troops in Afghanistan, there would not be any peaceful solution to the [Afghan] conflict. So this meeting is of great significance. It is taking place in a very critical and important time, and we are trying to exploit that situation, he said. "This is an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned negotiation. The French are only facilitators. They are not participating in our discussions, and I hope something positive will come out of it.”
Beheer says the United States is not involved in the meeting, which is organized by the Foundation for Strategic Research, a French think tank.
Taliban officials say there would only be speeches at the event, and that no political commitments or peace negotiations will take place with representatives of the Afghan Peace Council.
Speaking to reporters in Kabul on Tuesday, Mr. Karzai reiterated his support for the Afghan dialogue.
The Afghan president said his country has “a desire for peace and every real and right initiative," whether it is from the United Nations or Afghan elders, whom he says, have been welcomed and supported by his government.
Support for political reconciliation has grown in the country because, Afghan leaders say, the nation is tired of fighting. Afghan activists say it is possible to reconcile with the Taliban without compromising on basic women's and human rights.
Afghan peace activist Nargis Nehan says there are parliamentarians and members of the government who were against women’s rights and used violence to claim power during the country's civil war in the 1990s.
“We have managed to reconcile with them, and today we see some of them as our ministers, as our parliamentarians. Of course, many of them have not been brought to justice; we are not happy about them. But we believe that if we have reconciliation and political settlement together with justice, we will be able to actually reconcile with them [i.e., the Taliban] and bring them on board,” Nehan said.
The Taliban imposed strict Islamic law in Afghanistan until they were routed by a U.S.-led invasion 11 years ago.