After more than a decade of war, formal talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government will begin in the coming weeks, the country’s president has told key aides.
According to a senior government official, president Ashraf Ghani believes meetings could begin in early March after Pakistan signalled its support for the move.
Previous western-sponsored attempts to get the Afghan government and Taliban representatives around the same table failed under Mr Ghani's predecessor, Hamid Karzai.
Although the Afghan Taliban’s spokesman denied there were any plans for talks, hopes are rising following Pakistan’s decision to pressurise the insurgent leadership.
On Tuesday, general Raheel Sharif, Pakistan's powerful military chief, travelled to Kabul to tell Mr Ghani the Taliban are increasingly amenable to discussions.
Pakistan has considerable influence over the Taliban, a movement that was supported by Islamabad in the 1990s and which since 2001 has been free to use Pakistani territory to launch attacks against the western-backed government in Kabul.
Since becoming president last year, Mr Ghani has worked assiduously to secure Pakistan’s help in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table by addressing Pakistani fears that Afghanistan is a base for its enemies.
The president has won plaudits from Islamabad by putting on a hold an arms deal with Pakistan’s arch-rival India, and by deploying troops against anti- Pakistan militants based in Afghan territory.
In return, Mr Ghani expects Pakistan to tell the Taliban to enter negotiations and drastically reduce the surge in militant attacks inside Afghanistan.
Sartaj Aziz, the foreign affairs adviser to Pakistan’s prime minister, said reports of an immediate breakthrough were premature, but that progress had been made amid the “quite unprecedented” improvement in relations between the two countries.
“These things have been going on for the last few weeks,” Mr Aziz said, referring to contacts between Taliban and the Afghan government. “We suggest the right kind of people to talk to and that kind of thing, but this is an Afghan-led process.”
Pakistan has also been pressured to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table by powerful ally China, which is alarmed by the overspill of militancy into western China.
US denies reports
On Thursday, the US embassy in Kabul denied reported claims by Afghan Taliban sources that insurgent leaders would hold an initial round of talks with US officials.Mr Ghani’s spokesman, Ajmal Obaid Abidy, said the international community had accepted demands that peace talks be conducted between the Afghan government and the Taliban, not with outside actors. So reports of directs talks between the US and the Taliban, he said, “are only rumours”.
Michael Semple, one of the world’s experts on the movements, said there was no guarantee talks would succeed, given that the Taliban has ramped up attacks in recent months.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the signs on the Taliban side that they are preparing to end the war,” he said. “Maybe there will be a round of talks, but the real test will be whether there will be another spring military campaign.”
Afghan analysts say Mr Ghani will not be able to sustain his tilt towards Pakistan, which is proving unpopular with sections of the public, unless he is rewarded with a sharp decline in violence.
“Ghani’s biggest challenge is if the coffins keep coming,” said leading Afghani journalist Bilal Sarwary. “But the Taliban have only been preparing to fight.”
– (Guardian service)