To hold candid and free discussions on neutral territory

Two-day discussions among various Afghan factions including the Taliban, the Northern Alliance and government representatives began on Wednesday in Chantilly, a chic suburb of Paris. The ultra-secret talks have been set up by the French government which would like to play a bigger role in Afghanistan. The meeting is closed to the press and the exact location of the talks is not known. Speculation is that the talks are being held at the famous Chateau of Chantilly which belongs to the French state.

This is the first time that Taliban representatives are in direct talks with other factions that make up the political landscape. The talks have been organised under the auspices of the government-supported think tank, Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS).

This is the third meeting of its kind organised with the active support of the French foreign office and the discussions, entitled Afghans speak to Afghans, are shrouded in mystery. The FRS explains that the principal aim of the meeting is to give the parties 48 hours in which to hold candid and free discussions on neutral territory that holds no danger. The talks will focus on the future stability of Afghanistan once NATO forces withdraw in 2014, referred to as the “2020 Horizon for Afghanistan”.

The 20-odd Afghans participating know one another well, with most of them living in Kabul. Almost all colours of the political spectrum are present at the talks: the pro and anti Karzai factions, persons close to the late Ahmed Shah Masood, and, for the first time, representatives of the Taliban.

No member of the Haqqani network is present but the repeat presence has been noted of Mollah Salam Zaeef, the Taliban regime’s last Ambassador to Pakistan, who has been acting an emissary between Kabul and Islamabad. Ghairat Baheer, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s son-in-law is representing the Hezb-I- Islami movement, while Hamid Karzai is represented by his nephew Hekmat Karzai. Other notables include Masood’s brother Yahya Masood, Northern Alliance representative and former defence minister Yunus Qanuni and Haji Mohammed Mohaqeq, present on behalf of the Shia Hazara community.

The French Foreign Office or the Quai d’Orsay insists that there is no question here of negotiations “just an exchange of views”. However, there will be oncrete efforts made towards chalking out a road map for peace post 2014. Already NATO has adjusted its anti-Taliban sanctions regime by allowing some of them to travel to Paris for these talks, the third of its kind since last November 2011 and June 2012. However, this is the first time that the Taliban are present.

Camille Grand, the Director of the Foundation for Strategic Research who is the prime mover of the meeting with the active support of the Foreign Office said participants at the last two meetings did not object to the presence of the Taliban. The meeting will be “guided” by representatives from the Asia (AfPak) division of the foreign office as well as the Strategy division of the Ministry of defence, generally known as Pol-Mil or Politico-Military.

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