ISLAMABAD: Pakistan may be pushing the Taliban towards talks with the Afghan government to resolve their 17–year long conflict, the head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council said on Wednesday.
The comments marked a change in tone from Kabul, which has long accused Islamabad of not doing enough to facilitate peace.
Pakistan denies it offers safe havens to the Taliban, and says its influence on the group is limited. That has not stopped US and Afghan officials from pressuring it to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
The Taliban has so far refused direct talks with Kabul, which they consider an illegitimate, foreign-appointed regime in league with the US government, which toppled their rule of the country in 2001.
When asked if Pakistan was playing its role to push the Taliban to establish contact with the government, council head Umar Daudzai, who is also special advisor on reconciliation to President Ashraf Ghani, told Arab News: “They say that they are doing it.”
Daudzai landed in Islamabad for talks on Tuesday amid efforts by the US and others to reach a settlement to the Afghan conflict.
The urgency of the latest round of talks has been exacerbated by reports that US President Donald Trump plans to withdraw 5,000 military personnel from Afghanistan, triggering uncertainty over the future role the US will play in training Afghan forces, and campaigning against militant groups.
But Daudzai denied the withdrawal of US troops would have a serious impact on security.
“We now have an Afghan National Security Force that is between 350,000–400,000 troops,” he said. “If President Trump had made such an announcement in 2012, it might have caused some worries, but now we have trained security forces. The only thing we lack is air power.”
The Taliban has strengthened its grip over Afghanistan in the past three years and, according to one US government report, Kabul controls just 56 percent of the country’s territory, down from 72 percent in 2015.
US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, recently held three rounds of peace talks with the Taliban; a fourth round with US officials in Qatar this week was called off by the Taliban due to disagreements over the involvement of Afghan officials.
When asked if his government was in touch with the Taliban, Daudzai said: “Indirectly. Informal, indirect contact, yes.” He added that he felt prospects for peace were stronger than ever before.
“There are layers (within the Taliban) that are rethinking the whole situation. Still there are fanatics that want to continue fighting, but there are positives. They are more exposed to the outside world now, through social media. It has had a great impact on Taliban thinking.”
When asked if a meeting this week between US officials and the Taliban in Saudi Arabia would take place, Daudzai said: “Unless they (the Taliban) agree to meet with the Afghan government face to face, that kind of meeting may be difficult.”
But the special envoy was hopeful of a breakthrough in talks this year: “We have declared that 2019 should be the year of peace in Afghanistan. Within 2019, hopefully, we will reach a final peace deal.”
Meanwhile, the US State Department announced that Khalilzad would lead an interagency delegation to India, China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in January to meet senior government officials “to facilitate an intra-Afghan political settlement.”
It said Khalilzad continued to coordinate his efforts with President Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, and other Afghan leaders.
Other than the US, China, Russia and Iran have also engaged in talks with the Taliban, including landmark meetings in Moscow last November and Tehran in December. Several rounds of meetings have also been held in Beijing.
Daudzai welcomed the “multiplicity” of talks, but said all parties needed better coordination to create a consensus at national and international levels.
“They are coordinating with us,” he said, referring to meetings between the Taliban and representatives from the US, Russia and Iran. “All initiatives should be done in consultation, in conjunction with the government of Afghanistan. So if we have that driving seat, then okay, that’s not a problem.
“Somebody can sit in the front row and somebody can sit in the back, we’re all on the same bus. But if the Afghan state is not recognized as the driver, then we may face a serious challenge.”