Fugitive Afghan Taliban leaders are being increasingly pressured to relocate from Pakistan along with their families and businesses for refusing to join peace talks with Kabul, officials and insurgent sources told VOA in background interviews.
“The squeeze is continuing on them [the Taliban] and some have already left, or [are] leaving the country,” says a senior Pakistani official directly involved in matters related to the Afghan policy.
He did not want to be named because publicly the government has not yet acknowledged the crackdown, which is part of the policy to seek an early repatriation from Pakistan of nearly three million registered and undocumented Afghan refugees.
Pakistan has been under pressure from international partners, particularly the U.S. to deny space to the Taliban and other groups waging the violent insurgency in Afghanistan. The country denies charges its spy agency’s covertly supports the Taliban and its ally, the Haqqani Network, enabling them to prolong the Afghan war and expand influence of the insurgents after withdrawal of U.S.-led international combat forces.
The spike in violence has undermined efforts to improve bilateral relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has repeatedly accused Islamabad of not taking action against fugitive Taliban leaders. In turn, Pakistan alleges Afghan intelligence operatives are sheltering and supporting fugitives linked to the anti-state Pakistani Taliban.
Pakistani authorities earlier this month arrested several key Taliban leaders from areas in and around Quetta, the capital of the southwestern Baluchistan province, which borders Afghanistan. The detainees also include Ahmadullah Muti, commonly known as Mullah Nanai, Suleman Agha and Mullah Samad Sani.
All three held key positions in the insurgency and were arrested after they ignored requests to hold peace and reconciliation talks with the Afghan government, according to Pakistani and insurgent officials. Authorities have also raided and shut down some Islamic seminaries, or madrassas, for refugee children that are suspected of sheltering Taliban insurgents.
The crackdown has prompted the Taliban to send a high-level delegation to Islamabad from its Qatar-based political office to take up the issue with Pakistani officials.
Taliban delegates also plan to convey concerns over the way Afghan refugees are being treated, including their forceful eviction and deportations from Pakistan, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told VOA.
But he dismissed reports as “misleading” that Taliban political envoys have traveled to Pakistan to brief authorities there on the insurgent group’s recent secret meetings with Afghan officials in Qatar. He said neither such meeting has taken place.
Islamabad Foreign Ministry officials have expressed ignorance about the Taliban visit.
But a Pakistani security official, requesting anonymity, has confirmed to VOA the presence of the Taliban delegation in the country, insisting they have come on their own, without any invitation. Kabul has objected to the visit, citing U.N. sanctions that bar Taliban leaders from undertaking foreign travel.
Some Afghan officials and politicians assert Pakistani authorities arrest or take action only against those Taliban leaders who want to negotiate peace directly with Kabul without any Pakistani influence.
“The allegations are that we are not doing anything against the Taliban in the province of Baluchistan. And if you do and you try to apprehend some individuals over there, if it is the case in present scenario, then we are accused that you are sabotaging the peace process,” complained Anwar-ul Haq, spokesman for the provincial government.
Speaking to VOA, he also rejected assertions Taliban insurgents are using Baluchistan as a training and launching paid for attacks in Afghanistan.
“The Taliban probably do not need a space or territory outside Afghanistan to receive training, to plan and maneuver their attacks. The entire rural Afghanistan is, at least during the nights, is in their control. So, maligning Pakistan as we are complicit as a state for all those activities would be bit of exaggeration. Yes, there are movements between the borders, which is understandable when you have such a huge Afghan populous as refugees, they [militants] come and they mix up in that population,” said Haq.
Calls for dialogue
Pakistani authorities point to critical challenges facing Pakistan to plug the nearly 2,600 kilometer mountainous Afghan border, saying the work is underway to secure it, but the country has not yet attained the stage to easily identify suspected cross-border movements.
But despite prevailing bilateral tensions some politicians in Afghanistan, like lawmaker Elay Ershad, believe in working together with Pakistan to build trust to bring an end to the Afghan conflict. She echoed Pakistani calls for a sustained dialogue to address mutual concerns, rather than conducting official policy through media and traditional rhetoric.
“I say, let us start it again. Let us work on that mistrust and why would we blame each other for what happened in the past. Let us start a new beginning let us solve the problem and we are neighbor countries we cannot solve over problems by fighting with each other. We have to negotiate. We have to convince our people and we have to convince our media and people who make irresponsible comments,” Ershad said.
Pakistan hosted a first round of peace talks between Taliban and Afghan government officials last year, but a scheduled second round was scuttled after it was revealed the insurgent group's founder and longtime leader, Mullah Omar, had been dead for two years. His successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, was killed in U.S. drone strike in May this year in Baluchistan.
But the Taliban has intensified attacks and expanded influence to more Afghan province since its new chief Mullah Hibatulla Akhundzada has taken control, fueling concerns of more bloodshed in the years to come and prompting calls for renewing efforts to resume peace talks.