The New Year in war-ravaged Afghanistan has dawned with hopes the country can finally move towards a peace process bringing the bloody conflict there to an end.
For the first time since the U.S.-led coalition invaded the country 10 years ago, the Taliban this week disclosed they are engaged in talks with U.S. officials and have reached a preliminary deal to set up a political office in the Gulf state of Qatar. In addition, the insurgent group says it has also asked for the release of its prisoners being held at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has announced that his country agrees with the plan to open a Taliban office in Qatar, and with Washington’s efforts to talk with the insurgent group, as a way to prevent further conflict and the deaths of Afghan civilians.
Neighboring Pakistan has reacted cautiously, declining to say whether it is involved in the peace process. However, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar reiterated her country's support for any Afghan-led effort aimed at political reconciliation in the war-torn country.
"The stability of the region is one of Pakistan’s core national interests because Pakistan has suffered for too long because of lack of stability in the region," she said. "So any move, any effort towards reconciliation, towards national stability in Afghanistan, has a direct positive effect on Pakistan, so Pakistan would obviously be supportive of that."
According to Kabul-based analyst Omar Sharifi, it would be premature to tie too many hopes to the Taliban’s announcement that it has agreed to open a political office, but that there are reasons behind President Karzai's public support for the move.
"They welcomed the opening of the Taliban office in Qatar, but the logic behind this, of course, is [that] they would love to see a kind of contact address for the Taliban," he said. "More importantly, they would very much like to see the exclusive Pakistani monopoly over the Taliban [be] somehow eased or loosened."
Pakistan’s military is also accused of maintaining close ties with the anti-U.S. Haqqani network of Afghan insurgents, based in the Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan. But Pakistani observers like Rustam Shah Mohmand, former ambassador to Afghanistan, insist that any Afghan peace arrangement not involving Islamabad would be difficult to implement.
"Because there are still many Afghan refugees in Pakistan and ... many Taliban leaders come and go, so Pakistan’s position would be very pivotal," he said. "I am sure that at some point in time the Pakistanis will have to be brought on board."
American officials have refused to comment directly on their reported contacts with the Taliban, but have suggested it could help move toward a negotiated settlement of the conflict. U.S. Ambassador to Islamabad Cameron Munter, however, dismissed suggestions Pakistan is being kept out of the process.
“We are both committed, both Pakistan and the United States, to a peaceful, successful, prosperous Afghanistan," he said. "We are committed to working together to try to achieve those goals ... not only about our cooperation together, but our cooperation with regional partners to make sure that a settlement that is reached in Afghanistan is something that is satisfactory for everyone in the region."
Separately, representatives of the Afghan insurgent group led by fugitive warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar also traveled to Kabul this week to meet with President Karzai, General John Allen, the U.S. commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Ryan Crocker, Washington’s envoy to Kabul.
Hekmatyar's Pakistan-based son-in-law, Ghairat Baheer, led the three-member delegation to the Afghan capital. Speaking to VOA at his residence in Islamabad, Baheer described talks with the Americans as "very frank, detailed, direct and useful."
"I think the Americans seem to be more pragmatic and realistic then they were before," he said. "We believe if the Americans are serious in their withdrawal from Afghanistan [by end of 2014], if this is a formal and final stance, then the rest of the issues could be subjected to negations."
The United States plans to withdraw all its combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. But most observers believe that without sustained international backing, deep divisions among various Afghan factions including the Taliban could return the country to a civil war-like situation, much like the one Afghanistan experienced after the withdrawal of Soviet forces in the 1990s.