Afghan talks in Oman

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In a bid to resolve the bloody Afghan crisis, the representatives of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States will meet in Oman next week to discuss reviving peace talks with Afghan Taliban. But it was not clear if Afghan Taliban representatives would join the talks. According to Taliban sources they had not yet received an invitation and plan to skip Monday’s discussions in Muscat, casting doubt on efforts to revive long-stalled negotiations. The four-nation Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QGC), comprising these countries has been trying to ease the path to direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, with little success. The Taliban, ousted in a U.S.-led military intervention in 2001, has been gaining territory in recent years through a violent insurgency to try to topple Afghanistan’s Western-backed government and re-establish their regime.

A senior Pakistani foreign ministry official confirmed the talks would take place on Oct 16. Last week, Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif told Voice of America the “quadrilateral arrangement will again be in operation” in Muscat in October. The U.S. embassy in Islamabad did not comment for the report. Talks and efforts to kick start negotiations have failed following the 2015 announcement of the death of the Taliban’s founder and long-time leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, in 2013. According to Amin Waqad, a close aide to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and a senior member of the High Peace Council (HPC),  HPC and government representatives will participate, and it is an important one because the Taliban representatives will be there. We will go with a clear plan. Two senior Afghan Taliban leaders, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters news agency the group’s leadership council met on Tuesday and decided it would not send a delegation to Muscat even if the group was invited to participate.

These talks are being held at a time when Pakistan’s Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal is in America and he told there on Tuesday that his country shared the international community’s concerns about the instability in Afghanistan, which continued to spill over into Pakistan. Pakistan desired peace in Afghanistan and would thus support any effort to political reconciliation in Afghanistan, which was the only viable path towards obtaining lasting peace in the region. He was of the view that blaming Pakistan for the security failures in Afghanistan was unhelpful as well as offensive to the people, whose sacrifices in the fight against terrorism were without parallel in the region. The minister reaffirmed Pakistan’s readiness to work with the US as a partner for achieving peace and security in the region and urged that seeing the region from the prism of third country would compound the situation for anyone. Pakistan desires a broader and comprehensive partnership with the US, beyond security and particularly in the education sector.

The diplomatic move from the US is reportedly speeded up as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will visit to India, Pakistan in one trip later this month. The modalities of the visit and the dates are still being discussed. Tillerson will become the fourth senior U.S. official to visit New Delhi after the Trump administration took over. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster arrived in April, Alice Wells, Washington’s top official for South and Central Asia, in July, and Defence Secretary James Mattis in September. Significantly, as Mr. McMaster and Ms. Wells, Mr. Tillerson is expected to travel to both India and Pakistan on the same visit, indicating a sharp shift from precedent. During the Bush and Obama administrations, U.S. officials avoided clubbing visits to New Delhi and Islamabad because of India’s sensitivities over a “hyphenation” of the U.S.’s relations with India and Pakistan.

The U.S. Secretary of State’s visit to India is likely to highlight growing ties between New Delhi and Washington, and greater cooperation on Afghanistan. This follows President Trump’s announcement of his new South Asia policy, which has encouraged India to invest more in development projects in Afghanistan, while taking a much tougher line on Pakistan’s support to terror groups. Among steps the U.S. is believed to be considering against Pakistan is the cancellation of its Non-NATO ally status, further cuts to military and civilian aid to Pakistan, as well as targeted sanctions against officials believed to have links with terror groups.

However, while India has welcomed the U.S.’s avowed hard line on Islamabad, many may look askance at the newly revived policy of senior officials visiting both India and Pakistan on the same trip, which in the past gave the appearance of the U.S. “mediating” between the two countries. Statements earlier this year by U.S. envoy to the United Nations suggesting that Washington was prepared to mediate to “de-escalate the India-Pakistan conflict”, as well as Mr. Tillerson’s suggestion that “India take some steps of rapprochement on issues with Pakistan” — in a reference to Kashmir — have added to the disquiet. The Trump administration’s decision to merge the Af-Pak. desk (office of the Special Representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan) with that handling Central and South Asia has also been seen as another step towards rehyphenating India and Pakistan with a view to handling South Asia.