Pak-Taliban talks: A mysterious cancellation

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By Rahimullah Yousufzai

High hopes have been attached to the next round of Taliban-US peace talks in Qatar on February 25 after the surprise cancellation of the proposed meeting between the two sides in Pakistan.

The Afghan Taliban abruptly announced that the Islamabad visit of the group’s 14-member negotiating team on February 18 had been cancelled. Pakistan’s government didn’t comment on the announcement. Was there more to the story than just travel restrictions that stopped the Afghan Taliban from visiting Pakistan and meeting with the Prime Minister?

The Taliban statement said some members of the Taliban negotiating team couldn’t travel overseas as their names were mentioned in the ‘blacklist’ of the UN Security Council. It is all rather intriguing as certain sanctioned Taliban members have been travelling overseas in the recent past to take part in peace talks in Qatar, the UAE and even in Russia last month.

Sanctions were relaxed on the intervention of the UN Security Council’s permanent members to enable those named in the ‘blacklist’ to undertake travel for attending meetings and conferences. This means the visit of sanctioned Taliban leaders to Pakistan could have been facilitated if the US was kept on board along with other UN Security Council members.

On their part, the US said no official invitation was received from the Pakistani government for peace talks with the Taliban in Islamabad and pointed out that Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghan reconciliation had not scheduled a visit to Pakistan at the time.

Pakistan’s information minister, Fawad Chaudhry however, had confirmed the Taliban delegation’s visit and their negotiations alongside US officials in Islamabad, terming it a ‘game-changer.’

There were unsubstantiated reports that differences had emerged in Taliban ranks over holding peace talks with Khalilzad’s team in Pakistan and meeting Prime Minister Imran Khan. Allegedly, a hardline faction of the Taliban led by the group’s finance commission and military commission heads, Gul Agha and Sadr Ibrahim along with some Qatar-based political commission members opposed the idea. 

They had argued that peace talks shouldn’t be held under Pakistan’s influence as it compromised the Taliban’s standing in Afghanistan as an independent entity and not Islamabad’s proxy. The Taliban have been consistently striving to maintain a distance from Pakistan without breaking the contacts the two sides established in the mid 90’s when the group emerged under Mullah Mohammad Omar’s leadership in Kandahar.

The Taliban announcement on February 13 about the visit to Pakistan was a surprise. It triggered a debate about the need for Taliban-US talks in Pakistan a week prior to the already scheduled next round of peace negotiations in Qatar’s capital, Doha. There was speculation that Pakistan would use the occasion to put pressure on the Taliban to agree to hold talks with the Afghan government and also accept a ceasefire to create favorable conditions for success of the peace process. 

In the context of Pakistan’s deeply polarized politics, the Taliban announcement about a meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan gave his critics the opportunity to cry foul about his soft corner for the Taliban in the past. It also facilitated the resurfacing of a favorite nickname of his critics, Taliban Khan, for offering to open an office for Pakistani Taliban in the country to facilitate peace talks and for justifying the Afghan Taliban’s fight in Afghanistan against US-led foreign forces. 

In any case, news of a first meeting between a Pakistani Prime Minister and the Afghan Taliban after the fall of the Afghan Taliban regime in 2001 sparked understandable interest and raised questions about the long-standing relations between Pakistan and the Taliban, in a post peace deal Afghanistan.

The Afghan government tried its utmost to get the Taliban delegation’s visit to Pakistan cancelled. Its foreign ministry complained to the UN Security Council that Afghanistan wasn’t consulted about Pakistan’s engagement with the Taliban and argued that the Security Council’s resolution would be violated if the planned Taliban meeting in Islamabad went ahead. After being kept out of the peace talks and last month’s Moscow conference, President Ashraf Ghani’s government has been taking steps to stay relevant and remind all stakeholders that it is an elected and constitutional entity with executive authority and cannot be ignored in the peace process.

Despite all these complexities, peace talks between the Taliban negotiators led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai and the US delegation headed by Khalilzad have managed some progress. The Doha talks have so far been the most relevant and promising and other peace tracks sponsored by Russia, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia-UAE, appear to be side-shows. In this spirit, the next round of Doha talks are keenly awaited to outline more concrete steps in an increasingly complex peace process.

(Rahimullah Yusufzai is senior political and security analyst of Pakistan.  He was the first to interview Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and twice interviewed Osama Bin Laden in 1998.  Twitter: @rahimyusufzai1. Article courtesy Arab News)