Islamabad: In Monday night, United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China were secluded away late into trying to lay a foundation they hope will eventually lead to peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban. But in the end, the biggest decision that appeared to be reached was to meet again. Who was in the meeting but did not want to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said officials but good progress was made during what turned out to be a marathon session. Taliban official, in a rare face-to-face meeting with The Associated Press, said there would be no direct talks with the Afghan government without first talking to the United States.
The final communique, however, seemed to rule that out. “The participants emphasized the immediate need for direct talks between representatives of the Government of Afghanistan and representatives from Taliban groups in a peace process that aims to preserve Afghanistan’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said the communique. A small breakaway Taliban group said Monday it was ready for talks. The faction, which emerged following the revelation last year that the Taliban leader and founder Mullah Mohammed Omar had died two years ago, is believed to be relatively small and its absence from the battlefield is unlikely to be a game changer.
The Taliban have stepped up attacks across the country and while they have been unable to hold urban centers, the religious militia has operated in rural areas, often dispensing justice and challenging the government’s authority. Afghan security forces have taken heavy casualties, particularly since the withdrawal of NATO-led forces from Afghanistan last year. They complain bitterly about inadequate supplies and still rely heavily on U.S. airpower.
The presence of the U.S. and China together at the table reflects the urgency of getting talks started. China has historically close ties with Pakistan and while there were four countries represented at Monday’s talks, Pakistan — which is often accused of harboring Taliban leaders, including the fierce Haqqani group, a U.S.-declared terrorist group — is seen as the key to getting the largest contingent of Taliban fighters to the table. Imtiaz Gul, whose Center for Research and Security Studies has delved deeply into the Afghan conflict and Pakistan’s decades-old involvement, says Pakistan has significant leverage with the Taliban, led by Omar’s replacement Mullah Akhtar Mansoor.
Militants in both countries are allied, and getting rid of the Haqqanis, for example, could unleash a violent backlash inside Pakistan where the army has been fighting for several years to defeat a coalition of militant groups largely based in its border areas with Afghanistan, Gul said. That battle has been brutal with thousands of Pakistani soldiers killed and wounded and thousands more Pakistani civilians killed in deadly retaliatory suicide attacks by the militants. Official said, though the Taliban were not invited to Monday’s talks, a senior Taliban official, who spoke on condition of anonymity fearing exposure and capture, told the AP that two Taliban delegates, currently headquartered in Qatar, will meet “soon” with China’s representatives. The meeting, which will also include Pakistan, is to be held in Islamabad.