NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Afghanistan expects to restart peace talks with the Taliban within six months, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah said on Thursday, pinning hopes on factions within the Islamist militant group he said might be ready to give up violence.
Talks between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban have been on hold since efforts collapsed last year after it became known that Mullah Mohammad Omar, the movement’s founder and leader, had been dead for two years, throwing the group into disarray.
Abdullah said that Omar’s death had left the Taliban deeply divided, making peace negotiations complicated, but there was reason to hope that talks to end 15 years of bloodshed in the South Asian country could resume.
“There might be groups among the Taliban who might be willing to talk and give up violence,” Abdullah told Reuters in an interview in New Delhi, where he held talks with Indian leaders on bilateral issues.
“It should be sooner than six months,” Abdullah said, when asked when he expected talks with the Taliban to begin.
He said there had been some contact between Taliban factions willing to give up violence and Afghan security agencies, but he declined to give further details.
His comments came ahead of a meeting between four powers - the United States, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan - in Islamabad on Feb. 6 to lay the ground for talks that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government wants to conduct with the insurgent group.
China had a role to play in the Afghan peace process because of the challenge it faced in its Xinjiang province from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which was also fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, Abdullah said.
Equally important were Beijing’s close ties with Pakistan, Abdullah added, because that could help coax the Taliban to the negotiating table.
The Afghan Taliban leadership, now headed by Mullah Akhtar Mansour, has long sheltered in Pakistan from where they have waged a deadly insurgency.
China, Pakistan and the United States had agreed to use their influence to facilitate talks with the Taliban, Abdullah said.
The countries are discussing issues including where to hold talks with Taliban factions who decide to come to the table and what to do about those who stay away, he added.
Any talks with the Taliban will be led by the Afghans, he said.
“How it moves forward and what it takes, nobody can judge at this stage,” Abdullah said.
Despite the ongoing effort to restart negotiations, the Taliban have ramped up their campaign of violence across Afghanistan from the start of the year, with suicide attacks and territorial gains in southern Helmand province.
Last month they reiterated their demand for the release of political prisoners as a condition to rejoin talks. They have also asked to be removed from a U.N. blacklist under which senior leaders cannot travel freely and their assets are frozen.
Abdullah said he expected U.S. forces to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2016 in some form and that an extended presence was necessary to support the government.
A Pentagon report released in December said the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated in the second half of 2015, with Taliban militants staging more attacks and inflicting far more casualties on Afghan forces.
The outlook prompted U.S. President Barack Obama to announce in October that he would maintain a force of 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through most of 2016, instead of drawing down to an embassy-based presence by 2017.
“The reality is that there is this number of troops and they are doing an effective job in support of our institutions, in equipping, in assisting, in training,” Abdullah said.
“My perception is that the presence will continue beyond 2016 in one form or another, and that is needed.”
Editing by Mike Collett-White