ISLAMABAD: Pakistan is willing to use its “little influence” with the Afghan Taliban to resurrect faltering peace talks between the Kabul government and the insurgency, foreign office officials said, just days before Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi is scheduled to visit Kabul to meet with top civilian and military leaders.
US officials have long pushed Pakistan to use its influence with Taliban leaders, who Washington says are based inside Pakistan, to bring them to the negotiating table and end a 17-year war. Islamabad vehemently denies it is covertly sheltering Taliban leaders.
“We can facilitate the peace process by using our little influence over the Afghan Taliban,” a foreign office official with knowledge of the talks told Arab News on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media about the issue.
“Pakistan is willing to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table but obviously is not in a position to forge a peace agreement with them. The modalities and all other relevant things are to be decided by the US as it is the major stakeholder,” he said.
However, he said that the Taliban seemed “least interested” in engaging with the Afghan government at a time when the next presidential elections were scheduled to be held in April next year. He said the US and Afghanistan had to mutually decide if they wanted to delay the presidential elections so the present dispensation could better engage with the Taliban or if they wanted a new government with a full five-year mandate to broker a peace deal.
Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump asked for Pakistan’s help with Afghan peace talks in a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan.
“The peace process has started and the good thing is that the US has finally agreed to find a negotiated settlement to the Afghan conflict,” foreign office spokesman Dr. Mohammad Faisal told Arab News. “Pakistan is ready to play its role and our foreign minister will convey this to the Afghan leadership.”
Addressing a ceremony in Multan last week, Foreign Minister Qureshi said it was a testament to the robustness of Pakistan’s foreign policy that the US had asked for assistance in resolving the Afghan conflict, adding that he would visit Kabul on Dec. 15 to hold talks with the “Afghan leadership on political reconciliation and durable peace in Afghanistan.”
Pakistan is committed to an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, the minister added.
During last week’s visit to Pakistan of the US special representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, Islamabad had expressed its willingness to host direct talks between representatives of the Afghan government and leaders of the Taliban if all stakeholders, including the US, agreed on a common agenda for the meeting.
“We have conveyed this to the US during the recent visit of Zalmay Khalilzad, but obviously nothing is final at this stage as different options for peace in Afghanistan are being explored,” the foreign office official said.
Last month, Khalilzad said that he hoped a peace deal would be reached by April 2019. But Afghan Taliban militants have repeatedly said that they have not accepted any deadline and that a three-day meeting in Qatar between their leaders and Khalilzad in October ended with no agreement.
In July 2015, Pakistan arranged the first official meeting of representatives of the Kabul government and the Taliban in Murree, a hill resort near Islamabad. Observers from the US and China also attended the talks. The process was, however, scuttled after the death of Taliban chief Mullah Omar, throwing fledgling efforts to negotiate into disarray.
Last week, the Afghan president constituted a 12-member committee to hold direct talks with the Taliban, but they have yet to get a nod from the militants.
Rahimullah Yousufzai, an expert on Taliban affairs, said that Pakistan can help to arrange meetings of the Taliban with the US and the Afghan government by using its influence but “there is still a long way to go.”
“The Taliban are seeking a schedule of withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and until the US agrees to that, there are little chances of moving ahead,” he told Arab News, adding that Pakistan could facilitate negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban as it had in the past but “nothing more than that.”
“Taliban’s international recognition has increased manifold in the past years and they are now least dependent on Pakistan’s help,” Yousafzai said.
A senior security official privy to talks said that no peace deal was possible without the ownership of the process by the Afghan people: “Right now, the biggest question is, do the Afghan people even accept this process?”