Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani has formed a 12-strong team to negotiate peace with the Taliban, but implementation of any deal will take at least five years, he said on Wednesday.
Ghani was speaking at a UN conference on the 17-year-old war between Afghan security forces and an increasingly confident Taliban, which is fighting to drive out international forces and establish their version of strict Islamic law.
The Taliban are not at the Geneva talks but will be closely monitoring the gathering of Afghan leaders and international diplomats, which coincides with efforts by US President Donald Trump’s administration to push for peace with the group.
“We seek a peace agreement in which the Afghan Taliban would be included in a democratic and inclusive society,” Ghani said, adding that any deal must fulfil certain conditions, including respecting the constitutional rights of women.
Ghani, facing a war-weary public back home, called on Afghans to back his peace push in an election next April.
“Presidential elections in the spring are key to successful peace negotiations. The Afghan people need an elected government with a mandate to obtain ratification (and) implement the peace agreement and lead the societal reconciliation process,” he said.
“Implementation will take a minimum of five years to reintegrate six million refugees and internally displaced people,” he said.
The two-day Geneva gathering is intended to help resolve the quagmire created by the war, a development that would pave way for the withdrawal of foreign troops.
Ghani said his chief of staff would lead a negotiating team including women as well as men, and an advisory board, comprising nine diverse and representative committees, would provide input into the negotiations.
US Under Secretary of State David Hale said he was encouraged by the plan for peace talks and the formation of a negotiating team.
“The time has come to plan for an Afghanistan of peace,” Hale told the conference.
Hale urged the Taliban to commit to a ceasefire and appoint their own negotiating team, but also warned that the presidential election needed to be run better than parliamentary elections last month.
“Afghans and donors alike will watch to see if the technical flaws are corrected in next year’s presidential election,” Hale said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov echoed the concerns about the elections and called for a broad intra-Afghan dialogue, saying Russia was worried about the worsening military and political situation.
There should be closer cooperation against the Afghan wing of ISIS extremist group, which threatened the whole region, Lavrov said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said ISIS presence and radicalization of local groups was a new challenge, but a foreign military presence always caused instability and served as a recruiting ground for extremists.
He warned that nobody would gain from introducing extremists into Afghanistan as they had in Syria and Iraq.
“This horrific trend needs to be arrested before it reaches catastrophic proportions,” Zarif said.
Afghanistan’s chief executive Abdullah Abdullah said the five-phased peace process would start with an intra-Afghan dialogue, followed by discussions with Pakistan and the United States, then regional actors, the Arab Islamic world and finally NATO and non-NATO countries.
“The aim of each and every effort by our partners has to be to encourage the Taliban to come to the negotiating table with the Afghan government and put everything on the table,” he said.