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KABUL, Afghanistan — Diplomats from the United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China urged the Taliban and their allies on Tuesday to participate in a new round of peace talks tentatively scheduled for the first week of March.

A statement by the four-nation group gave no specific dates but said the meeting would be held in Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad.

Even if the Taliban accept the invitation, the peace process aimed at ending the bloody, 15-year war is expected to last many months and perhaps even years.

The first round of exploratory peace talks in Pakistan last summer was suspended after the announcement that the movement’s longtime leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had died two years earlier. That announcement sparked a leadership struggle in the insurgent group that led to the suspension of further meetings.

“The (four) member states invite all Taliban and other groups to participate through their authorized representatives in the first round of direct peace talks with the Afghan government expected to take place by the first week of March 2016,” said a statement by the so-called Quadrilateral Group released at the end of the one-day meeting in Kabul.

Setting a date for the resumption of negotiations with the insurgents topped the agenda of Tuesday’s meeting, the fourth that the four-nation group has held since first convening at the end of last year. In previous talks participants sought to hash out a road map for ending the conflict.

The Taliban, who insist on the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan, have not yet stated whether they will join the peace process. But the movement, which now exerts influence over nearly a third of Afghanistan, is believed to be under intense pressure from Pakistan to attend the Islamabad meeting. At an informal meeting in Doha last month, their representatives indicated that the movement may now be ready to engage with Kabul.

It was not immediately possible to reach the Taliban spokesman for comment, and the insurgent group did not post any statement on its website regarding its possible participation in coming talks.

“We want to make it clear to those who oppose [the peace process] that we believe in peace and that it is one of our priorities,” Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani said at the opening of Tuesday’s talks. “We ask all insurgent groups to come forth and make peace.”

Since he assumed office in September 2014, President Ashraf Ghani has made peace talks with the Taliban one of his administration’s priorities. That commitment has met with resistance from both critics and some of his political allies, who view the Taliban as a terrorist group that must be defeated on the battlefield.

Since then the Taliban have mounted a nationwide offensive, which has stretched Afghan government forces to their limits. The group controls swathes of rural areas in the south, east and north, but so far they have failed to conquer and hold any sizable urban centers. In late September, they took control of the northern city of Kunduz but were ousted after two weeks of heavy fighting.

After their last meeting in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, the Quadrilateral group underscored the importance of ensuring a conducive atmosphere for a dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The government wants the Taliban to cease their attacks during the talks, but the insurgents have given no such guarantees.

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

lekic.slobodan@stripes.com

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