By Maksim Yeniseyev
TASHKENT -- An international conference in Tashkent on Afghanistan's future has ended with a clear message to the Taliban: miss this chance to negotiate for peace or suffer the consequences.
The "Peace Process, Security Co-operation and Regional Connectivity" conference took place in Uzbekistan's capital March 26-27. Representatives from more than 20 nations and organisations participated, but not the Taliban.
The participants reached a consensus on the peace process in Afghanistan, adopting a "Tashkent Declaration".
The declaration expressed "strong backing for the [Afghan] National Unity Government's offer to launch direct talks with the Taliban, without any preconditions", referring to a peace plan announced by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on February 28 that could allow the Taliban to become a political party.
A "political settlement that is Afghan-led and Afghan-owned" is essential to ending the war, according to the preamble of the declaration.
Signatories were large and small, as well as far and near. They included Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, the United States, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Japan, Qatar, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the European Union (EU) and the United Nations.
Attendees urged the Taliban to come to the negotiating table at the conclusion of the conference.
Uzbekistan is ready to host "direct talks in Uzbekistan between the Afghan government and the Taliban", Uzbekistani President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said.
The Taliban failed to appear at the conference despite numerous calls to attend. The absence was noted by participants and observers.
"There won't be Taliban representatives today or tomorrow at the conference," Sherzod Kudratkhojayev, a spokesman for the event, told a Caravanserai correspondent on March 26. "But I think they'll hear about [the conference results]."
"[We] understood in advance that the Taliban probably wouldn't send anyone," Tashkent political scientist Umid Asatullayev told Caravanserai.
"They have had big problems with choosing a leader [since the slaying of supreme commander Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor in Balochistan in May 2016]," he said. "But the conference should be a clear, loud signal for them ... The next time, the international community might not offer its hand' [to the Taliban]."
Afghan observers agreed that the Taliban had missed a chance to make progress.
"The Tashkent summit was a great opportunity for the Taliban to discuss their demands with the Afghan government and with the world," Zakaria Zakaria, a member of the Wolesi Jirga (lower chamber of the Afghan parliament), told Caravanserai.
"Unfortunately, they failed to use it ... But they still have a chance to think about it," he said.
Mirziyoyev described the conference's theme as having "all interested external forces ... decisively and unanimously [tell] the armed opposition to come to the peace table".
If the Taliban refuse to talk, the international community will have no choice but to fight, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon warned during the event.
"Choose the path of dialogue and reconciliation. Have the courage of peace," the EU's top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, urged in her remarks, according to the EU press office.
"The only solution ... is negotiation," Kabul-based political analyst Farhad Hashemi told Caravanserai. "The Afghan government is the only destination for peace talks .... If the Taliban accept the government's proposals and the Tashkent Declaration, then both sides will be winners."
A failure to forge peace after the Tashkent conference could be dangerous to Afghanistan, Ghani warned, citing the unwanted presence of the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), which even the Taliban does not tolerate.
"Afghanistan has about 2,000 IS militants," Ghani said at the conference. "We must fight to include the Taliban in our society. That way, we will be able to concentrate on terrorist threats."
Echoing Ghani's call, the Tashkent Declaration urges the Taliban to cut "all ties to international terrorism, including al-Qaeda, [ISIS] and other transnational terrorist networks".
[Sulaiman from Kabul contributed to this report.]
How likely is it that the Taliban will fracture after the recent ceasefire exposed divisions in the group?