By Alexandra Zavis and Hashmat Baktash
6:17 PM EST, December 20, 2012
This post has been updated. See notes below.
KABUL, Afghanistan – Members of Afghanistan’s warring sides gathered near Paris on Thursday to begin informal talks about the country’s future as U.S. and NATO forces pull out.
It was the first time that senior figures in the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami insurgent groups met with Afghan government officials and members of the former Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban for years.
Organizers of the two-day gathering, which is being hosted by a French think tank, hope it will generate helpful discussions, but have said there will not be negotiations for a peace deal.
International efforts to draw the Taliban and other government opponents to the bargaining table are intensifying amid fears that the country could slide into civil war after the departure of most foreign troops by the end of 2014. U.S. and Afghan officials have been negotiating conditions for the presence of American forces to train, advise and assist government forces after combat troops withdraw.
Britain announced this week that it will withdraw nearly half of its 9,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year; France pulled out the last of its combat troops Saturday.
Officials with the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, which organized two previous rounds of lower-level talks with the support of the French foreign ministry, confirmed Thursday that the meeting had begun behind closed doors at the luxury Chateau de la Tour at Gouvieux, near Chantilly. [Updated 8:20 p.m., Dec. 20: An earlier version did not include location.] But they declined to provide details until the discussions conclude.
"The aim of the exercise is to let each of them express themselves, listen to each other and have a discussion in the best possible conditions," foundation director Camille Grand said. [Updated 8:20 p.m., Dec. 20: An earlier version did not include this quote.]The initiative has the support of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, said government spokesman Siamak Herawi, who expressed hope that such meetings will “open the door for more negotiations regarding a permanent peace and stability for the country.”
Although the Taliban has refused to negotiate with Karzai’s government, which it routinely derides as a “puppet” regime, a Taliban spokesman last week said representatives of the group would be at the Paris talks to communicate its point of view.
“No political deals will be made with anyone,” Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said in a statement.
Wahid Muzhda, a Kabul-based analyst and former Taliban spokesman, said the decision to send two senior leaders, Mawlavi Shahabuddin Dilawar and Naeem Wardak, showed that the militant group considered the talks significant.
“What happens on the margins of this kind of negotiations is very important,” he said. “They can talk to each other and exchange views … I think slowly, slowly we are going to have peace negotiations.”
Other Afghan observers were more cautious, saying the ability of such initiatives to deliver progress remains to be seen.
Police in Afghanistan’s southern Nimroz province reported that a roadside bomb struck one of their vehicles Thursday in the city of Zaranj, killing three of their members and five civilians. Provincial police chief Gen. Abdul Jabar Pordeli blamed the Taliban for the attack, which also wounded a policewoman.
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Special correspondent Kim Willsher in Paris contributed to this report.