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Heart of Asia Conference on Afghanistan Kicks Off in Dushanbe

FILE - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
FILE - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

A regional ministerial conference called the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process (HoA-IP) started Monday in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe to try to advance the goal of ending the decades long conflict in Afghanistan.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who arrived early Monday to attend the annual conference, also met his Tajik counterpart Emomali Rahmon on the sidelines.

The meeting is just the latest in a flurry of diplomatic efforts to jumpstart a peace process that has been stalled for months.

The gathering is taking place as a May 1 deadline, negotiated separately between the United States and Taliban, to withdraw all foreign forces from Afghanistan, looms. President Joe Biden told reporters in his first press conference last week that it was “going to be hard to meet the May 1 deadline."

However, Biden said he could not envision U.S. troops staying in Afghanistan past next year.

“It is not my intention to stay there for a long time,” the U.S. leader said.

The Taliban have warned that any deviation from the deadline might result in the group restarting its attacks against foreign forces.

“Any responsibility for the prolongation of war, death, and destruction will be on the shoulders of those whom committed this violation,” the group’s spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement.

Taliban stopped direct attacks on the U.S. and NATO forces once it signed an agreement with the U.S. in Doha in February of 2020. However, it increased its attacks on Afghan forces, taking the level of violence to a 10 year high at times.

The increase in violence has been a major deterrent in progress in peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban, which officially started on September 12, 2020.

Under the agreement the U.S. signed with the Taliban, the militant group was supposed to negotiate with the Afghan government and other factions to find a resolution to the conflict, but the two sides have made scant progress and have yet to agree on the agenda for the talks.

The Taliban are under intense international pressure to reduce violence or announce a ceasefire.

Following another regional conference on Afghanistan hosted by Russia earlier this month, the U.S., Russia, China, and Pakistan, issued a joint statement calling on all parties in Afghanistan to reduce violence and for the Taliban to forego their ‘spring offensive,’ the yearly renewal in attacks after a winter lull, in order to facilitate peace negotiations.

The Taliban sent signals that it may be ready to yield.

“We have floated a plan under which all related sides will reduce violence. But this is not a cease-fire,” Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem told VOA earlier this month.

To create momentum for the peace talks, the U.S. has recently proposed several ideas, including creating a transitional government that includes the Taliban. Afghan President Ghani, who took office for the second time last year and still has four more years to go, has strongly rejected that proposal, calling elections the only way to form a new government.

HoA-IP was launched in 2011 in Istanbul, Turkey, to help find a solution to the challenges facing Afghanistan. Fifteen countries participate in this process, while another 17 countries and 12 regional and international organizations support it.

Around 50 countries and international organizations are attending the ninth conference of its kind. Participants will issue a statement at the end.

The Dushanbe conference comes in advance of another meeting in Turkey organized by the United Nations which both Taliban and the Afghan government are likely to attend. The Turkey conference, expected in the next couple of weeks, is being viewed as a game changer in the Afghan peace process.