Next week’s meeting in Islamabad between officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States and China is intended as the first step towards resuming stalled negotiations aimed at ending the 14-year-old war that kills hundreds each month and has intensified in the past year.
Whether the Taliban, increasingly dominant on the battlefield since the withdrawal of most international troops by the end of 2014 yet riven by factional infighting, eventually joins the talks is far from clear.
Even if it did, those present would only represent part of the Islamist militant movement fighting to topple the government in Kabul and restore strict Islamic rule in place before it was ousted in 2001.
But important elements of the Taliban have signalled they may be willing to send negotiators at some point.
One Taliban commander said preparations had gone as far as choosing a team, including two members of the Taliban’s office in Qatar, but others were more cautious.
“We may do it after the venue, time and terms and conditions for the proposed talks are decided by these four countries first,” said one senior member of a group of Taliban leaders based in the Pakistani city of Quetta.
Afghan officials say the meeting schedule does not include any Taliban representation, but they do not rule out the possibility of the group joining at some stage.
With security worsening, Kabul is trying to limit expectations of a breakthrough, and says the aim of next week’s talks is to work out a road map for peace negotiations and a way of assessing whether they remain on track.
“This will help Afghanistan and our partners to measure the tangibility and sincerity of efforts taken by the parties,” President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman said in an emailed response to questions on the objectives of the meeting.
It is uncertain whether the latest violence in Afghanistan is intended to disrupt talks or strengthen the Taliban’s negotiating hand, but government Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said Kabul would not bow to pressure.
“I hope that various groups of the Taliban do not think that,” he told reporters.
IS THERE A TALIBAN AT ALL?
After six months of worsening fighting, with the province of Helmand slipping out of control and frequent suicide bombings in the capital, Afghanistan and its neighbours are trying to return to peace talks, albeit without the Taliban for now.
Leadership divisions may impede progress, with some militant factions saying they will not take part.
“There is no such thing as the Taliban, there are groups of Taliban,” Ghani said last month.
The announcement last July, shortly after inaugural talks between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban were staged, that its founder Mullah Mohammad Omar had been dead for more than two years, threw the militant group into disarray, stopping the fledgling peace process in its tracks.
Mullah Akhtar Mansour, Mullah Omar’s longtime deputy, took over the leadership, but was rejected by parts of the movement which accuse him of covering up Omar’s death for his own gains and of being Pakistan’s puppet.
But Mansour’s faction has shown signs of warming to the idea of joining peace talks at some stage.
One militant said they had received “positive” signals from different sources to make preparations for likely talks, but that it had not been decided when or where they would be held.
A senior Taliban commander said Sirajuddin Haqqani, Mansour’s deputy and the head of the feared Haqqani network blamed for a series of suicide attacks in Kabul, may take part.
Another, however, believed that if Haqqani was involved it would only be through proxies, as he was unwilling to risk his security by coming out into the open.
“As usual, he may send his representatives but he would never attend such a meeting,” said one person close to him.
The Taliban’s main spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said no formal negotiating team had been appointed, but he stopped short of a full denial of involvement.
“We haven’t received any formal message for peace talks so far and therefore we didn’t appoint our team for negotiations,” he said.
By contrast, Mansour’s rivals, led by Mullah Mohammad Rasoul, are holding out.
“We are not involved and will never be part of Mullah Mansour’s peace negotiation,” said Rasoul’s deputy and spokesman, Mullah Manan Niazi, adding the group’s objective remained to drive foreign forces out of Afghanistan completely.
“We will continue this jihad until reaching that goal.”
For its part, the Taliban may look for signs of concessions in areas including 2011 United Nations sanctions that impose asset freezes and travel bans on its leaders.
“They should first remove us from the blacklist so we can freely travel around the world for negotiations with them,” said the member of Mansour’s faction.
Russia has already signalled a willingness to be “flexible” on the issue.