HERAT -- Afghan government negotiators returned to Qatar on Tuesday (January 5) for a second round of talks with the Taliban, where they will push to enact a permanent ceasefire and to protect existing governance arrangements.
The Afghan delegation arrived in Doha January 5, through it was unclear when talks would begin, AFP reported.
"The negotiating team of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has started its internal meetings and is waiting for the Taliban delegation," Faraidoon Khwazoon, a spokesperson for the country's High Council for National Reconciliation, tweeted Wednesday (January 6).
Addressing parliament a day earlier, Afghan intelligence chief Ahmad Zia Saraj voiced concerns that the Taliban will attempt to drag out the talks.
"We believe the Taliban are planning to drag the talks (out) until the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan in the month of May," he said.
"We do not see the Taliban has any intention or will for peace," he added.
Calls for peace in Herat
Ahead of the talks, on Sunday (January 3), more than 1,000 Herat Province residents -- including religious scholars and tribal elders -- gathered in Herat city to call on the government and the Taliban to declare a ceasefire and an end to the war.
"We ask the government and the Taliban to stop the war so that Afghans can live in comfort," said Abdul Rashid, a resident of Shindand District, Herat Province.
"Our young people should not be killed in war anymore, and we can no longer tolerate the loss of our loved ones," he added.
"The war has continued in Afghanistan for 40 years, and it has not helped," he said. "This war has resulted in destruction and the killing of ordinary Afghans."
Every day, innocent civilians are killed, said Toor Muhammad Zarifi, a tribal elder in Herat Province, calling for an immediate stop to the bloodshed suffered by Afghans.
"Security forces and the Taliban, who are all the children of this country, lose their lives every day," he said. "The war has been intensified, and the casualties have increased."
The Taliban's killing of security personnel and of civilians is illegitimate, and the perpetrators will face God's punishment, according to Maulawi Sayed Shiraqa Qatali, a religious scholar in Herat city.
"Civilians and religious scholars call for a lasting and inclusive peace in the country," he said. "The killing of our loved ones needs to stop, and we cannot tolerate seeing killing, suicide attacks and destruction every day."
Peace a 'priority, obligation'
In a separate gathering on December 31, more than 100 key religious scholars of the western region declared the war in Afghanistan illegitimate and deemed a ceasefire "an obligation" during a gathering in the Herat Grand Mosque.
The scholars decried the slaughter of Muslims and said those who kill innocent civilians will be punished by God.
Peace is a priority, because if there is no peace, nobody can meet his or her obligations, said Maulawi Khudadad Saleh, chairman of the Ulema Council in Afghanistan's western region.
"Religious scholars call on the government and the Taliban to declare a ceasefire as soon as possible and create an opportunity for a lasting and inclusive peace," he said.
"The so-called version of Islam that the Taliban promote as an Islamic system is not acceptable to the Afghan people and religious scholars," he said. "The Taliban do not have the right to choose a [so-called] Islamic system for the Afghan nation, because the current system is [in fact] Islamic."
An agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban should usher in an inclusive government that protects the rights of all Afghans, said Abdul Khaliq Haqqani, director of the Herat Department of Hajj and Religious Affairs.
"All religious scholars support the peace talks between the government and the Taliban in Qatar and consider them a golden opportunity to stop the bloodshed of Muslims in the country," he added.
Assassination of journalists, activists
Civil society activists and journalists on January 2 called on the Taliban to stop the killings in Afghanistan, the day after a journalist was killed in Ghor Province.
Bismillah Adel Aimaq, director of Voice of Ghor radio, was gunned down January 1 near Firoz Koh.
The killing of journalists and civil society activists in a number of provinces is a matter of great concern, said Nooria Afghan, a civil society activist in Herat city.
"We ask the Taliban to stop assassinating journalists and civil society and human rights activists," she added. "Journalists and civil society activists are impartial, and they amplify the public's voice."
Afghan called on the government to work to prevent the killings and to punish the perpetrators.
"The Taliban want to silence Afghan media by putting psychological pressure on journalists and civil society and human rights activists," she said.
The US military on Monday (January 4) blamed the Taliban for the assassinations of prominent Afghans.
Media activities have been strongly affected by the increased targeting of journalists, with many staying home out of fear of assassination, said Khalil Rasooli, a journalist in Herat city.
"Terrorist groups want to curb freedom of speech with ... serial killings and to ensure that no one has the courage to raise their voice against them," he said, calling for an end to the killing of journalists and for the preservation of freedom of speech.