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Afghan Peace Talks Expose Rifts in Taliban Leadership

FILE - A general view of the Taliban office in Doha, Qatar.
FILE - A general view of the Taliban office in Doha, Qatar.

There are signs of deepening splits among Afghanistan’s Taliban after a spokesman denied that peace talks between Afghan officials and senior Taliban leaders are authorized by the group.

This week, Pakistan’s national security advisor, Sartaj Aziz, confirmed that negotiators had met last month in Urumqi, China and will meet again later this month to help end Afghan hostilities and revive a national peace process.

However on Wednesday the militant group downplayed the meetings.

“If something as such has happened or is planned for the future then it is mere personal infraction, which can in no way ever represent the Islamic Emirate [name Taliban uses for its ousted government],” says a statement from the so-called Leadership Council of the Taliban emailed to media, including VOA.

Unclear if meeting authorized

Pakistan’s national security advisor, Sartaj Aziz, testified this week before the foreign affairs committee of the National Assembly, lower house of parliament, disclosing that Islamabad had arranged a secret meeting last month between Afghan peace negotiators and members of the Islamist group in the northwestern Chinese city of Urumqi.

But the Taliban in Wednesday’s announcement explained its leadership did not authorize the meeting in China. It says that officials based in the Taliban’s “political office” in Qatar have only been granted permission to conduct political affairs and hold meetings on behalf of the insurgency.

“It is also vividly clear that the Islamic Emirate has a political office for its political affairs, which is responsible for handling all the internal and external political activities related to the Islamic Emirate.”

The Taliban has confirmed recent interactions with Afghan lawmakers, civil society peace and rights activists as well as UN officials in Qatar, Norway and Dubai. But it has so far not commented on the meeting in Urumqi, the capital of China’s restive Xinjiang region that borders both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Kabul’s delegation in the two-day talks was headed by Mohammad Masoom Stanikzai, who was until then a key member of the country’s High Peace Council tasked to negotiate peace with the Taliban.

Stanikzai has since been nominated as minister of defense by President Ashraf Ghani and is awaiting parliamentary approval.

Taliban officials, including Mullah Mohammad Hassan, Rahmani, Mullah Abdul Razaq and Mullah Abdul Jalil, reportedly attended the meeting. They are all based in Pakistan. The Pakistani spy agency was also reportedly represented in the talks.

China's role

The Urumqi meeting also underscored China’s stepped up diplomacy to promote peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan, though officials in Beijing did not comment on the meeting.

Afghan President Ghani’s outreach to reset relations with neighboring Pakistan after years of mutual suspicions and mistrust is being credited for the recent flurry of meetings with insurgent leaders. Islamabad’s support is seen critical for promoting the Afghan peace because much of the Taliban leadership has been based in Pakistan since the Islamist group was ousted from power in 2001. Afghans alleged Taliban fighters have used Pakistani border areas for directing and sustaining the insurgency.

Pakistani officials, however, say the recent surge in Taliban violence in Afghanistan represents the “biggest impediment” in the way of peace.

New breed of insurgents

Senior government officials tell VOA that with the passage of time Pakistan’s leverage with the Taliban insurgents has also “gradually shrunken because of the emergence of a new breed of insurgent field commanders.” They insist many of these Taliban commanders “act independent of the Taliban’s political leadership and thus are making it difficult to bring them all on the same page for talks with the Kabul government.

This week Afghan officials told the United Nations in New York that an influx of some 7,000 foreign fighters into Afghanistan is challenging the country’s security forces. Afghan and U.N. officials say the influx is the result of Pakistan’s military campaign against Taliban strongholds on the other side of the border.

On Tuesday, Afghan lawmakers accused the Pakistani spy agency, the ISI, for being behind this month’s Taliban attack on the Afghan parliament. They alleged that the legislature was punished for opposing an intelligence sharing deal that the Afghan National Directorate of Security has recently signed with the ISI. Pakistan has not yet commented on the allegations but it has strongly condemned the Taliban raid on the parliament in Kabul as a terrorist attack.

Analysts say that Pakistan's disclosure of its secret efforts to trying to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table could be the outcome of growing criticism in Afghanistan that Islamabad is not reciprocating Ghani's "landmark gestures and steps" for promoting tension-free bilateral ties.