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The Taliban raised issues including the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, prisoner release, and removal of its members from UN sanction lists during the first official peace talks with the Kabul government, officials said Thursday.
The two sides sat down on Tuesday for discussions hosted by Pakistan in Murree on the outskirts of Islamabad, and will meet again after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Government delegates involved in the negotiations told reporters at a Kabul press conference on Thursday morning that demands lists had been exchanged and key discussion topics set for the next round. A venue has yet to be decided, but one of the delegation members said that they might take place in China.
Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Karzai, who led the government delegation, outlined the topics discussed by the Taliban and added that there would be no preconditions to future discussions.
The talks could be the first step towards ending more than 13 devastating years of conflict in Afghanistan, which began in 2001 when hardline Taliban militants were removed from power by a US-led invasion force.
Ceasefire discussions will also take place in the next session, but delegation member Haji Din Mohammad said that military operations against the Taliban would continue for now. The Taliban similarly did not agree to suspend attacks, and claimed responsibility for two separate suicide bombings that left one dead and at least three injured on Tuesday.
Violence has been on the rise in Afghanistan since most American and allied foreign forces pulled out at the beginning of this year and intensified with the beginning of the Taliban's spring offensive in April. Local troops are now responsible for Afghan security, but they have been taking heavy casualties while struggling to combat the insurgents.
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The Afghan foreign ministry described the talks as "the first step towards reaching peace," in a statement released on Wednesday, adding that it sought a durable and lasting halt to violence. "We are hopeful that the negotiations result in ensuring dignified peace and permanent stability in the country and region," it said.
The statement went on to thank Pakistan for facilitating the meetings, as well as China and the US, which had observers in attendance.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) welcomed the discussions and urged both sides to move toward a stable solution. "In the long term, peace is not a luxury, it is a necessity," said UNAMA head Nicholas Haysom. "I welcome the direct face-to-face engagement by the parties as the only way to achieving progress towards a negotiated agreement and ultimately the peace that Afghanistan deserves." Haysom added that achieving this could be long and challenging process, however.
It remains unclear whether the talks actually could put an end to the fighting. The Taliban's leadership appears to be divided on desirability of a peace process and spokesmen have recently reiterated their opposition to Afghanistan's government. But those who attended the talks had direct approval of deputy leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, delegates said on Thursday.
Rival jihadist group Islamic State (IS) is also increasing its influence and presence in the country. A number of Taliban commanders have defected and sworn allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi since IS claimed in January that Afghanistan, along with Pakistan, was part of its "Khorosan" province.
The two Islamist groups have since clashed and IS has captured significant territory from the Taliban in eastern Nangarhar province in recent weeks. IS even beheaded captured Taliban fighters in June.
Worries over IS's expanding influence and recruitment could be driving the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government, as they seek to consolidate their position under the threat of losing influence to IS. Mansour sent an open letter to Baghdadi last month in which he said his group "doesn't want to see interference in its affairs," insisting that there was room for only "one flag, one leadership, and one command" in the fight to establish Islamic rule in Afghanistan.
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck