Friday, 23 August, 2019

Afghans and Pakistanis cite varying degrees of progress in Taliban talks

The Afghan government is scheduled to resume face-to-face negotiations with the Taliban next month after initial talks ended early Wednesday, boosting hopes that the warring parties may eventually inch closer to a peace deal.

The talks, which took place in Pakistan, were among the most significant between the two sides since the Taliban was driven from power in Afghanistan in 2001, according to Afghan and Pakistani officials.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has made a negotiated settlement with the Taliban a top priority and had been urging Pakistan, where many Afghan Taliban leaders reside, to facilitate the process. For months, it appeared that Pakistan wouldn’t be able to play a meaningful role, which triggered criticism from Afghans who questioned Ghani’s strategy.

But representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban finally met Tuesday evening at a mountain resort about 90 minutes from Islamabad, the capital. On Wednesday, there were conflicting accounts about what had been accomplished.

Several Pakistani security officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to freely discuss the matter, said the two sides made real progress, discussing terms for a possible cease-fire. Those officials said the Afghan and Taliban representatives also made opening proposals about a future role for Taliban leaders in the Afghan government.

But Afghan and U.S. officials, who monitored the talks along with a delegation from China, offered far more cautious assessments.

In a statement, Ghani described the talks as a “first step towards reaching peace.”

“The Afghan people are hopeful that the negotiations continue with good intentions and determination,” the statement said. “We are hopeful that the negotiations result in ensuring dignified peace and permanent stability in the country.”

Two years ago, a U.S-backed effort to get the Afghan government and Taliban leaders to meet in Qatar broke down after the organization displayed its flag and an “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” banner in Doha, where it had opened an office.

Though the latest talks appeared to get off to a smoother start, plenty of obstacles remain in the effort to bring a peaceful end to the nearly 14-year war.

Many Afghans remain deeply skeptical of Pakistan’s motives because of the country’s long-standing ties to the Afghan Taliban.

There are also doubts about whether the Taliban negotiators speak for the fighters on the ground. The Taliban’s supreme leader, Mohammad Omar, has not been seen publicly in years, and it’s unclear whether he endorses the talks.

 And there are fears that a peace deal may fuel the Islamic State in Afghanistan. One influential Taliban commander, Abdul Qayyum Zakir, has threatened to join the Islamic State or form his own group if the talks continue, according to Reuters.

Still, the opening talks may be the clearest signal yet of Pakistani commitment to helping Ghani obtain a peace deal.

Pakistani security officials said the country’s powerful army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, is closely monitoring the proceedings.

“He gave clear directives to the ISI to make it happen,” said one Pakistani security official, referring to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

The official added that “all groups” affiliated with the Taliban were represented in the talks.

Western officials said they were encouraged by Pakistan’s role.

“The main objective of a first meeting is a second meeting, and the early indications are good,” said a Western official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

Many analysts believe that the Pakistani military holds enough leverage over Taliban leaders to keep them engaged in the process.

But a former Pakistani general, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he didn’t want to appear as if he were interfering in the process, said he worries hard-liners within the Taliban or the Afghan government could “sabotage” the process.

“Yes, this is positive, but the gulf is wide and internal divisions have to be overcome,” he said.

Raghavan reported from Kabul. Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.

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