ISlamabad: A key gathering opened on Monday in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad in which four major countries, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States, hope to lay the roadmap to peace for the war-shattered Afghan nation.
The meeting comes as battlefield losses in Afghanistan are mounting and entire swathes of the country that cost hundreds of US-led coalition and Afghan military lives to secure slip back into Taliban hands. Taliban representatives are not invited to the talks, vowing to talk only to the US and not to the Afghan government.
As the gathering got under way, host Pakistan seen as key to bringing the warring Taliban factions to the table cautioned of the difficulties ahead.
Sartaj Aziz, adviser to the Pakistani prime minister on foreign affairs, warned against prematurely deciding which Taliban factions are ready to talk, urging instead “confidence building” measures to get even the recalcitrant Taliban to the negotiating table.
But analysts and participants alike say that while there are four countries talking, much of the hope for progress toward peace rests with Pakistan, which is accused of harbouring some of the fiercest factions of the Taliban, including the Haqqani group, a US-declared terrorist organisation. Pakistan says its influence over the Taliban is overrated.
Aziz refused to say whether Pakistan has a list of Taliban representatives prepared to enter into peace negotiations. The existence of such a list was announced Sunday by Javid Faisal, deputy spokesman for Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
At the start of the conference Aziz suggested that identifying only those Taliban willing to talk would be premature, urging instead that participants avoid the media and work toward finding ways to get even the most intransigent Taliban to talk peace.
He said the Islamabad gathering needs “to define the overall direction of the reconciliation process, along with the goals and targets it would like to set with a view to creating a conducive environment for holding direct talks between Afghan government and Taliban groups.”
On Monday, a breakaway Taliban group said 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, is believed to be relatively small and its absence from the battlefield is unlikely to be a game changer.
Though the Taliban were not invited to Monday’s talks, a senior Taliban official, who asked not to be identified 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, said the official.
Still, there seems little to no chance for early peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
The Taliban, who are struggling to consolidate their leadership council following Omar’s death, have drawn their line in the sand: no official talks with the Afghan government on a peaceful end to their protracted and bloody war until direct talks can be held with the United States.
“We want talks with the Americans first because we consider them a direct party,” the Taliban official said in a face-to-face interview with the AP.
The Taliban want recognition of their Qatar office under the banner of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name they used when they ruled Afghanistan until they were ousted by the US-led coalition in 2001. They also want the United Nations to remove the Taliban from its wanted list and they want their prisoners released from Afghan jails.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wants no part in giving the Taliban official recognition.
Maulvi Shazada Shaeid, a representative on Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, tasked with seeking peace with the Taliban, said the distance between the two sides is vast, holding out little hope for peace.
“In the current situation it is not possible to bring peace,” he said.
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