An Afghan Taliban delegation has traveled to Pakistan from Qatar for talks with officials to raise various issues, including “arrests” of some insurgent leaders, shutting down of some religious seminaries for Afghan refugees and “increasing problems” facing the displaced community in the neighboring country.
A senior Taliban official requesting anonymity told VOA the three-member-delegation has been dispatched to Islamabad from its political headquarters in Doha, the capital of the Gulf state, to convey concerns and seek information on what prompted the arrests of Taliban members.
The main spokesman for the Islamist insurgency, Zabihullah Mujahid, while confirming to VOA the arrival of the Taliban delegation in Pakistan, said the group routinely interacts with countries with which Afghanistan enjoys diplomatic ties.
“The delegation from Qatar has gone to Pakistan to take up with officials there problems facing Afghan refugees, their arrests, forceful evictions and deportations,” Mujahid insisted. He said no political issues or discussions on prospects of any peace talks with the Afghan government will be on the table.
The spokesman rejected reports as unfounded the visit is meant to brief Pakistani authorities on recent secret meetings between Taliban and Afghan officials in Doha.
The delegation consists of two former ministers in the deposed Taliban government, Mullah Jan Muhammad Madani and Mullah Abdul Salam, and a former ambassador to Pakistan, Maulvi Shahabuddin Dilawar. All three are considered highly influential and respected within the Afghan insurgency.
Pakistani officials have not yet commented on the visit.
Afghan Ambassador to Islamabad Hazrat Omer Zakhilwal told VOA he "was aware of their (Taliban) visit," without discussing further details.
Speaking in Kabul, Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmad Shakeb Mustaghani criticized the visit.
“This visit is not related to Afghanistan, and travel bans placed on members of the delegation by U.N. sanctions should be taken into account. However, if the visit is related to peace activities, it needs to be fully explained,” said Mustaghani, without elaborating. He was referring to U.N. travel restrictions on Taliban officials based in Qatar.
The Taliban visit comes after a senior Afghan official requesting anonymity told VOA earlier this week that Afghan intelligence chief Muhammad Masoom Stanekzai held two secret meetings with Taliban political envoys in Qatar in September and early October to discuss ways to resume the peace and reconciliation talks.
But Taliban spokesman Mujahid swiftly denied those reports as Kabul’s propaganda, saying none of its officials met with Stanekzai or any other representative of the Afghan government. He also refuted reports of any future meetings with Afghan interlocutors in Saudi Arabia.
Pakistani intelligence sources have confirmed to VOA arrests of several top Taliban leaders in parts of the southwestern Baluchistan province, including its capital, Quetta. Senior members of the so-called Quetta Shura, or leadership council, Mullah Ahmadullah Nani and Mullah Sammad Sani are among the detainees.
In his comments Saturday, Mujahid said that there are religious seminaries or madrassas for Afghan refugees, but lately Pakistani authorities have started closing down some of these facilities, undermining education opportunities for refugee children.
The Pakistan government denies Afghan allegations it is covertly supporting the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan. Senior government officials in background interviews told VOA on condition of anonymity that fugitive Taliban members have been given a “clear message” and are being pressured to engage in peace talks with the Afghan government or relocate to Afghanistan along with their families.
Speaking Friday to an unofficial Afghan delegation of parliamentarians, former officials and civil society activists, Pakistani foreign policy chief Sartaj Aziz said Pakistan’s message to all the combatants in Afghanistan is “loud and clear: nobody can capture Afghanistan on its own, and the key to peace lies in talks.
“We desire that both the NUG (National Unity Government) and the Taliban sort out issues among themselves and we will stand by them for any support we can lend to the process. He also welcomed unanimity of approach on the peace process within Kabul and hoped it would encourage all parties to join the process,” a statement quoted Aziz as saying.
The advisor vowed that Pakistan is doing whatever it can to persuade all Taliban factions to become part of the peace process and “indications are that many of them are now interested in joining the process.”
Islamabad insists insurgents are part of nearly three million Afghan refugees living legally and illegally in Pakistan. Authorities have lately stepped up pressure on the refugee population to go back to Afghanistan, saying their localities are being used by anti-state elements for terrorist attacks on both sides of the border.
Pakistan brokered and hosted the first direct peace negotiations between the Taliban and President Ashraf Ghani's government in July last year in a bid to end the 15-year conflict in Afghanistan. Those preliminary discussions were directly monitored by U.S. and Chinese diplomats.
But a scheduled second round was scuttled after it was revealed Taliban founder and longtime leader Mullah Omar had been dead for two years. Relations have since deteriorated between Pakistan and Afghanistan, with Kabul accusing Islamabad of not preventing the insurgents from using its soil for plotting attacks on the other side of the border; charges Pakistani officials reject as unfounded.