Pakistan and U.S.-led Western backers of Afghanistan are urging Kabul officials to resume peace talks with Taliban militants.
Fears are growing that a prolonged pause could encourage extremists such as the Islamic State group, along with various other “spoilers,” to fuel Afghan hostilities and reverse recently improved relations between Kabul and Islamabad.
Last month's revelation of Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s demise disrupted talks just weeks after the first groundbreaking meeting, which was hosted by neighboring Pakistan. That session before American and Chinese observers represented the first direct contact between Afghan government officials and Taliban fighters in 14 years.
Under the leadership of Omar’s successor, Mullah Akthar Mansoor, the Taliban has staged some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan, increasing pressure on President Ashraf Ghani not to re-engage with them and to rethink his outreach toward Pakistan.
Many Afghans continue to blame Islamabad for the recent spike in bloodshed, particularly in the capital, Kabul; tensions have led to deadly border skirmishes in recent days, while attempts to expand economic ties also have suffered setbacks.
“Recent events have led to a turning point in the bilateral relationship and when it comes to the future of the peace talks," said Franz-Michael Mellibin, European Union Special Representative for Afghanistan, who emphasized the need for Pakistani and Afghan leaders to move quickly to narrow differences.
"All those who do wish for peace will need to come together and cooperate in order to create the conditions that will allow peace talks to resume and allow the process to move forward," he added. "There will be those other forces out there who will try to stop the process from moving forward.”
Despite intense domestic opposition, President Ghani’s primary choice for confronting Taliban threats remains a process of peace and reconciliation. Mellibin also says Ghani remains firmly committed towards a path that can lead to a better relationship with Pakistan.
“The good news is that the talks and thoughts that are going on in Kabul right are deciding to try to revitalize Ghani’s original outreach to Pakistan and his ideas for creating a peace and reconciliation process with the Taliban,” Mellibin said.
Afghan authorities allege that Taliban commanders and fighters are holding meetings in Pakistan while sending messages of war to Afghanistan. A presidential spokesman in Kabul, Sayed Zafar Hashemi, again demanded Pakistani authorities stop those activities.
“Our stand is clear in this regards,” said Hashemi, “we want Pakistan to take action against all those groups that operate from its territory and have sworn to harm the people of Afghanistan.”
Pakistani officials deny the charges and insist that Afghan and Taliban negotiators need to return to the table.
Masood Khan, Executive Director of the Islamabad-based, state-run Institute of Strategic Studies, says Pakistan remains committed to its “robust ties” with Afghanistan.
“After the death of Mullah Omar, the Afghan government showed disaffection vis-à-vis Pakistan and distrust in regard to the dialogue process," he said. "In the meantime, ISIS has raised its head in Afghanistan. It boasts of a footprint in the region. It is threatening to eviscerate the rank and file of the Taliban.”
Khan says resumption of dialogue between Afghan officials and Taliban militants could only enable the neighboring countries to achieve their shared goal of peace and stability. He also warns there are “disaffected elements” in the Afghan government establishment trying to undermine President Ghani’s wider regional peace initiative.
“We think that the dialogue process must be resumed without delay," Khan added. "This historic opportunity must not be dissipated. The United States should use quiet diplomacy and its clout to bring the disaffected elements to the negotiating table. The government of Afghanistan in this regard should play a very pro-active part. Pakistan will continue to reach out to its interlocutors to drop their reservations to rejoin the negotiating process for the greater good of the people of Afghanistan and of the region.”
Khan, however, acknowledges that the Taliban must cease all sorts of hostilities as it re-engages with the Afghan peace process, saying talks do not make much sense if acts of terrorism continue.
Also condemning the recent spike in Taliban violence in Afghanistan, the U.s. State Department spokesperson John Kirby reiterated Washington’s backing for the Afghan peace process.
“We want to see Afghan-led political reconciliation continue to advance, and it was encouraging, the first round of talks [in Pakistan] a few weeks ago," he said. "As for the Taliban’s future, much of it is for them to determine if they are going to renounce violence and renounce the terrorist-type tactics that they use and contribute to a meaningful reconciliation process in Afghanistan."
New Taliban leadership
Meanwhile, Taliban leaders along Western and Pakistani observers insist the insurgency’s new leader, Mullah Akthar Mansoor, has consolidated his position despite initial opposition from the late Mullah Omar’s surviving family members.
Abdul Hai Mutmaeen, a political advisor to Mansoor, tells VOA that the Taliban remains committed to use all options to achieve its primary goal of forcing U.S.-led foreign forces out of Afghanistan.
“The [Taliban] Islamic Emirate’s policy is totally clear that resistance and peace process both will be in progress, but [the Taliban] will not accept that kind of peace process which effect our honor, independence and national interest,” he said.
Critics, however, remain skeptical about Mansoor’s ability to ensure a unified Taliban insurgency as it used to be under its founder, Mullah Omar.
Pakistani and Afghan officials say that initial peace talks with the Taliban in early July happened with Mansoor's approval. It is not yet clear, however, whether the new Taliban leader has stepped back from the peace process in the wake of his struggle to maintain unity of the insurgency. A fractured Taliban movement, observers say, could lead to regional factions and more defections to the self-declared Islamic State, making a negotiated settlement of the Afghan conflict even more difficult.