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Iran hosted the first significant talks in months between the Taliban and Afghan officials on Wednesday – a previously unannounced meeting that will come when the US completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan and districts across the country increasingly fall to the Taliban.
The high-level peace talks between the warring Afghan sides followed months of discussions in Qatar, which were stalled by a diplomatic stalemate and escalating violence. While officials faced each other at giant tables in Tehran and the top Iranian diplomat promised to end the crisis, fighting increased in Afghanistan’s western Badghis province.
The Taliban Political Committee, led by chief negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, flew from Doha to the Iranian capital to meet with Afghan officials, including former Vice President Younus Qanooni and others from the High Council for National Reconciliation.
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Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif welcomed the delegates and urged them to “make difficult decisions today for the future of their country,” state media reported.
After the “failure of the US in Afghanistan,” said Zarif, Iran was “ready to support the dialogue” and “resolve the current conflicts in the country”.
“Returning to the inter-Afghan negotiating table and committed to political solutions is the best choice,” he added. Zarif later tweeted that the meeting was “cordial” and promised that Iran would stand by the Afghans on their way to peace.
But a solution seemed far away on Wednesday when the Taliban offensive, which recently captured many districts in the north of the country, penetrated Badghis province. The insurgents had attacked the provincial capital Qala-e-Naw from several sides, said its governor Hasamuddin Shams. So far, the Afghan troops have succeeded in pushing back the Taliban.
Fighting raged near the provincial police headquarters and a Qala-e-Naw army base from early Wednesday morning, said Abdul Aziz begeln, chairman of the provincial council in Badghis.
At least two civilians were killed and 28 others injured, including women and children, in the fighting, said Dr. Sanahullah Sabit of Badghis Provincial Hospital. Doctors sent five people in critical condition to a regional hospital in neighboring Herat province for further treatment, he added.
Videos circulated on social media appeared to show Taliban fighters speeding into the provincial capital on motorcycles. Other clips show insurgents approaching the city’s prison and releasing inmates. The Associated Press was unable to independently verify the authenticity of the footage.
Fawad Aman, the deputy spokesman for the Afghan Defense Minister, promised that the security forces would evacuate the city in the coming hours. The Taliban did not speak publicly about the violence in Qala-e-Naw.
The rise in fighting – and the sudden news of peace talks in Tehran – come at a critical time for the war-torn country.
After a two-decade military campaign, the U.S. military announced Tuesday that 90% of American troops and equipment had already left the country, and the withdrawal is expected to be completed by the end of August. Last week, US officials finally cleared the country’s largest airfield, Bagram Air Base, the epicenter of the war to drive out the Taliban and hunt down the al-Qaeda perpetrators of the September 11 terrorist attacks on America.
The Taliban have achieved relentless territorial victories since April when President Joe Biden announced that the last 2,500 to 3,500 US soldiers and 7,000 allied NATO soldiers would leave Afghanistan. With their victories in northern and southern Afghanistan, the Taliban are increasing the pressure on the provincial cities and gaining control of important transport routes.
Afghanistan’s uncertain path to peace has profound consequences for its western neighbor Iran, in which, according to UN estimates, around 2 million Afghans live without papers. Amid the specter of yet another civil war, fears have grown in Iran that a new wave of Afghans are seeking refuge in the country, which is already battling harsh US sanctions to curb rising poverty.
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Iran and Afghanistan share deep cultural ties and a 945-kilometer border. Tehran has viewed the US military presence in neighboring countries as a threat in the past and urged the withdrawal of American troops from the region.
Iran, the Shiite center of power in the Middle East, has in the past occasionally received Sunni Taliban militants and Afghan government officials in Tehran for peace talks. As the host, Iran seeks a counterbalance to regional rivals like Saudi Arabia, who usually have a greater influence on Sunni groups in the Middle East.
The Taliban’s recent territorial gains have also fueled national security concerns in Iran.
“We warn the Taliban against approaching the Iranian borders,” said lawmaker Shahriar Heidari, member of the influential parliamentary committee on national security and foreign relations. “That is the red line of Iran.”