Taliban and Afghan peace negotiators have agreed on a code of conduct to safeguard against the risk of any breakdown in talks that began last month in Qatar to bring an end to decades of war, three official sources told Reuters on Tuesday.
The breakthrough was achieved with the help of US officials, as the two sides drew up 19 ground rules that their negotiators should observe during talks, the sources said.
While the talks have been taking place in Qatar's capital Doha, scores of Afghan soldiers and Taliban fighters have been killed in clashes and suicide attacks in which dozens of civilians have also died in recent weeks.
"Firming up code of conduct was extremely crucial as it proves that both sides are willing to continue talks even as we see that violence has not reduced on the ground," said one senior Western diplomat on conditions of anonymity.
The breakthrough came as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani held bilateral discussions in Qatar's capital of Doha with Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Envoy, and Gen. Austin Miller, the top commander for US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The intra-Afghan talks are part of a landmark deal signed between the United States and the Taliban in February.
Under the deal, foreign forces will leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counter terrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to negotiate a permanent cease-fire and a power-sharing formula with the Afghan government.
Diplomats had told Reuters that the talks had got off to a difficult start, with disagreements over how the Hanafi Islamic code could be used to guide negotiations and on whether the deal signed between the United States and the Taliban in February should be the basis for the talks, as demanded by the Taliban.
The three sources said the delegations were putting those differences to one side to move forward and agree on an agenda, but would work on resolving these issues during negotiations.
"The ground rules will serve as a foundation as both sides are making an effort to prevent a collapse," said a second senior official in Doha overseeing the talks.
A ceasefire is a top priority for the Afghan officials and the western diplomats who are facilitating these talks.
However, analysts believe the Taliban would not agree to a comprehensive ceasefire since clashes with Afghan forces and violence gives them leverage at the negotiation table.