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Taliban's Studied Silence on Dialogue Offer Raises Peace Hopes in Pakistan, US

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, center, and delegates stand for the national anthem during the second Kabul Process conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Feb. 28, 2018.

The Afghan Taliban’s silence to the latest offer of unconditional talks by the Kabul government has raised hopes in Islamabad and Washington the insurgent group may be mulling over joining the peace process. Previous offers of negotiations had been promptly rejected.

Pakistani military leaders contend their renewed push to bring insurgents to the table has led to the change in behavior.

A senior military official with direct knowledge of the developments said a recent open letter from the Taliban seeking direct talks with the United States was also an outcome of Pakistan’s fresh push in partnership with other key stakeholders to try to end the Afghan war.

He spoke to a group of reporters on condition of anonymity.

The path ahead is “fraught with troubles” and requires all stakeholders to use their respective influences to nudge warring Afghan sides to the negotiating table, he said.

The peace-making effort, he added, is also leading to improvement in Islamabad’s relations with Kabul and Washington.The official explained Pakistani civilian and security institutions, including the spy agency ISI, are in contact and talking to Taliban representatives. “We are sincerely trying to persuade them” and their allied Haqqani group to join the Afghan reconciliation process, the military official insisted.

But he cautioned “the matters could not be resolved overnight” because decades of hostilities have led to an “extremely complex situation” in Afghanistan.

There are groups in the Taliban and some of them are in contact with Russia, some with Iran and some with Pakistan,” the official noted.

Delegates attend the second Kabul Process conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Feb. 28, 2018.
Delegates attend the second Kabul Process conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Feb. 28, 2018.

Pakistan maintains security forces have eliminated all militant sanctuaries on its soil, but Taliban insurgents use nearly three million Afghan refugees as cover and military operations could result in collateral damage and trigger a violent militant backlash.

No comment yet

“So far, the stance [regarding Afghan President Ghani’s offer] has not been shared with me, so I am unable to offer any comments,” Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, has said in response to VOA’s repeated queries.

The Taliban’s reaction to past peace overtures by Kabul had been that it would join intra-Afghan talks only after all foreign forces leave Afghanistan.

The insurgent group would also justify its refusal, saying Afghan rulers are “American stooges” and engaging in talks with them would be simply “a waste of time” because they are not authorized by Washington to determine the fate of “foreign occupation” of Afghanistan.

Ghani’s proposed peace plan, includes removal of the names of Taliban officials from international blacklists, allowing insurgents to open an office in Kabul to pursue their goals through non-violent means and join the national political process.

General John Nicholson, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan acknowledged Wednesday he is also detecting signs the Taliban does not intend to reject outright Ghani’s latest offer that is backed by all international stakeholders.

“We know a lot is going on right now, I mean, this offer, I think, is being considered [by the Taliban]. We haven’t seen a public response [to the dialogue offer] which is interesting,” the general said in Kabul.

International efforts

Nicholson cited wider diplomatic and battlefield pressure on the insurgents as well as Washington’s ongoing intense dialogue at various levels and collaboration with Islamabad.

“I think some of the pressure is the U.S. policy putting pressure on Pakistan and that pressure is being felt,” the American general noted.

FILE - Taliban fighters are seen gathered in Shindand district of Herat province, Afghanistan, May 27, 2016.
FILE - Taliban fighters are seen gathered in Shindand district of Herat province, Afghanistan, May 27, 2016.

Nicholson described Kabul’s peace overture as a “well thought out plan” and stopped short of rejecting U.S. involvement in peace talks with the Taliban while commenting on the group’s open letter to Americans.

“The idea of talking exclusively to the U.S. is not in our approach to this. We think it is an Afghan-led process,” the general reminded.

“It’s encouraging that these offers are on the table and that we would appear to be in a point where they could start having a conversation on this,” said Nicholson. He cautioned though, peace processes take years to shape up.

Pakistani officials also note an improvement in relations with the Afghan government and speak of a better understanding developing between Pakistani army General Qamar Javed Bajwa and President Ghani.

Islamabad’s recent diplomatic engagements with Washington have also started paying dividends and allowed the two sides to understand each other’s concerns stemming from the protracted Afghan hostilities. Last week, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua led a high-level delegation to the United States and held extensive talks with senior Trump administration officials.

Both sides have been tight-lipped about these meetings, though privately Pakistani officials report “significant" progress. They say in return for Islamabad’s renewed attempts to help start Afghan peace talks, Washington has also begun to accommodate some Pakistani concerns.

Officials cited last week’s U.S. drone strike in an eastern Afghan border region that killed 21 militants, including senior commanders, of the outlawed Pakistani Taliban, which is plotting terrorist attacks against Pakistan. At Islamabad’s persuasion, the U.S. State Department on Friday offered a reward of $5 million for information on Mullah Fazlullah, the fugitive chief of the Pakistani Taliban, who is believed to be operating out of Afghanistan.