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Talks on Afghan Peace Process Set for Jan. 11 in Pakistan

FILE - Afghan security forces walk past a burning car after a group of Taliban insurgents stormed a compound used by Afghanistan's intelligence agency in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 7, 2015.

Four-way talks are set to begin January 11 in Pakistan on a framework for reviving peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Representatives from Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States are scheduled to take part in the discussions in Islamabad.

“The four-party committee is a new initiative and a key step forward,” said Maulawi Shahzada Shahid, a spokesman for the Afghan High Peace Council, a government body tasked with talking to the Taliban.

Pakistan hosted a first round of talks last July, but the negotiations stalled amid word that the insurgents' spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, had died two years earlier. The Taliban kept the news secret, apparently to avoid divisions in the movement over who would succeed him.

As preparations for the new discussions take place, some observers cast doubt on prospects for any breakthrough, given divisions in the ranks of the Taliban and conditions set by the two sides.

“Who is it that we are talking to?” asked Kabul-based political analyst Farooq Bashar, referring to several groups that operate in Afghanistan.

“Should we talk to the Taliban, ISIS, Haqqani network, or should we talk to Hekmatyar’s group?” he said, referring to Afghan rebel leader Gilbuddin Hekmatyar, who has been designated a global terrorist by the United States and blacklisted by the United Nations. His whereabouts are not clear.

Bashar added that the Afghan government has to come up with a clear strategy for peace and specify the relevant groups in the talks.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani acknowledged the divisions within the Taliban as a potential challenge during a news conference this past week.

"It is obvious that there are groups of Taliban, not a unified movement," Ghani said. "The fundamental issue here is the choice: Choose peace or terrorism. There will be no tolerance for terrorism."

Shahid of the Afghan High Peace Council told VOA that the council was willing to talk to all groups to end the war.

Conditions from both sides

Aside from the divisions in the ranks of the Taliban, other potential obstacles for peace include conditions set forth by the Afghan government and Taliban.

“The key is the will to negotiate and a genuine demonstration by both parties that compromise is possible,” Shahid said. “Putting out conditions beforehand by either party will be counterproductive. That being said, at some point in the talks, both parties have to be willing to meet the other side halfway through.”

Lack of a unified leadership may pose a challenge for the Taliban to compromise, because there are sects within the movement unwilling to make concessions.

The Taliban have long insisted on the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan as a precondition for peace talks to succeed and have demanded changes to the Afghan constitution.

The government in Kabul has also set conditions, including cutting off the Taliban's links with terrorist groups like al-Qaida and the Haqqani network.