Afghan officials were meeting Thursday with Taliban rebels and envoys from another Islamist militant group near Paris, looking beyond Afghanistan's insurgency to a future long after international forces have returned home.
French hosts say the secretive, rare meeting among rival Afghans in the town of Chantilly north of Paris over two days isn't expected to involve any horse-trading toward a possible peace and reconciliation deal in a country where long-term plans are overshadowed by the bloody, multifaceted insurgency against the Afghan government and the U.S.-led NATO troops supporting it .
About 20 Afghans from President Hamid Karzai's government, the Taliban, as well as the political opposition and the Islamist Hezb-e-Islami militant group will just try to foster a conversation after 11 years of war and consider what their country's institutions and civil society will look like after 2020.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said the talks were not intended as a negotiation, but as a way to foster discussion among Afghans. "France believes it is up to Afghans - and Afghans alone - to lead the process of reconciliation, with the support of the United Nations that has a Security Council mandate toward this end."
French officials and organizers declined to identify the exact location or participants, but said the aim was breaking the ice between various factions in Afghanistan.
"They have trouble talking," said Camille Grand, head of the partially state-funded Foundation for Strategic Research think tank, which is hosting the gathering. Six to 10 French experts, including officials from the Foreign and Defense Ministries, were also attending.
"The issue of the violence is in the minds of these people. No one is naive," Grand said in a telephone interview before the conference. "It's not that we're neglecting the violence, or trying to resolve it ... that's not the issue."
Envoys provisionally expected included Ghairat Baheer, representing his father-in-law, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the head of Hezb-e-Islami, and Karzai's nephew Hekmat Karzai. Shahabudin Delwar, who served as Afghanistan's ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan under the Taliban regime that was ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, was also expected to be one of two Taliban representatives, though it was not immediately clear who was on hand.
French media reported that Pakistan would also be represented. Last week, after meeting with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in Paris, French President Francois Hollande said France wants to help ease tensions in Afghanistan, and sees Pakistan as key to stabilizing the region.
The meeting is the third in France over the last year or so, but the last two did not come to light publicly until after, said Grand. The first was in November last year, the other in June.
The meeting comes as France, a U.N. Security Council permanent member which prides itself on diplomacy, is pulling its last combat troops from Afghanistan - well ahead of NATO's withdrawal timetable.