The fledgling U.S.-initiated dialogue with the Taliban, aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan, has come to a halt, an insurgent spokesperson said Monday, apparently dealing a blow to renewed hopes for a much-needed Afghan peace.
The disclosure comes as the chief U.S. negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, is visiting regional countries, including China, India and Pakistan, to work toward a negotiated political settlement to the 17-year-old conflict.
“The (dialogue) process has halted for now so the venue and the date for a future meeting are not known,” a senior Taliban official privy to the developments confirmed to VOA when asked whether their peace talks with the U.S. are still on track.
The insurgent official, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to share reasons behind the suspension of negotiations.
The U.S. State Department had no immediate response. When contacted Monday, a spokesperson said the department press office is operating on a reduced status due to the partial U.S. government shutdown.
Afghan government primary issue
The Afghan government is currently not participating in the peace talks, but American officials are eager to bring them to the table. It is widely perceived that the current deadlock is primarily over the Taliban's rejection of the U.S. insistence to speak directly with the Afghan government.
Afghan chief executive Abdullah Abdullah cautioned again Monday that while Kabul welcomes Khalilzad’s ongoing peace efforts, its involvement in talks is key to achieving the objective. “The people of Afghanistan will consider these efforts seriously when they see representatives of the Afghan government and Taliban at the negotiation table,” Abdullah told a weekly meeting of Cabinet ministers in Kabul.
Others involved in the negotiations warn they could fall apart unless both sides show some flexibility. “If not supported by real give and take — even some initial give and take — a doubt may soon set in about the dialogue process itself. This is what we are eager to prevent at all costs. If it happened, a more severe type of stalemate will take over,” warned a diplomat whose country was represented at the meeting in Abu Dhabi.
The Taliban maintain the United States is their primary adversary in the conflict and accuse Afghan leaders as well as security forces of being American "puppets."
Initial signs of tension amid the talks had emerged last week when a Taliban statement alleged the U.S. approach to the dialogue was “non-serious” and "superficial."
In a Pashto language statement circulated through its social media accounts, the insurgent group asserted that in talks with Taliban envoys, U.S. negotiators were focusing on issues that Afghans themselves have to resolve without foreign interference.
The Taliban also accused Washington of pressuring the group through Islamic countries and leaking details of discussions to the news media for the sake of propaganda. “We cannot agree on any other issues as long as the independence of Afghanistan is in the occupation of foreigners,” the Taliban statement warned.
Nearly a month since last round of talks
The last round of substantial U.S.-Taliban talks occurred on December 17 in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Pakistan took credit for arranging the two-day meeting several months after U.S. officials directly engaged Taliban political envoys based in Qatar to explore Afghan peace possibilities.
Both Khalilzad and the Taliban described as “productive” their interaction in Abu Dhabi, where representatives of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and UAE were also in attendance.
The Taliban had announced at the end of the meeting that the negotiating sides agreed to reconvene “after deliberations and consultations by both sides with their respective leaderships.”
Insurgents maintain that their representatives in talks with the U.S. team have focused on seeking a timeline for withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan and assuring American interlocutors that Afghan soil will never again be used for terrorism against the United States.
Khalilzad in China
Khalilzad visited China on Monday after holding talks with officials in India as part of his current four-nation trip that includes Afghanistan. The Afghan-born U.S. envoy is due to arrive in Islamabad on Tuesday to further his discussions with Pakistani leaders and push his Afghan peace mission, although the latest insurgent assertions have raised doubts about the future of the U.S.-led efforts to end the war in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan was by far the deadliest country in 2018, with nearly as many reported fatalities as Syria and Yemen combined, says the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). The non-governmental organization collates and analyzes data on political violence and protests around the world.
The number of reported deaths in Afghanistan stood at 43,574 last year, accounting for 30 percent of all fatalities recorded by ACLED during 2018.
The war in Afghanistan is America's longest overseas military intervention. It has cost Washington nearly $1 trillion and killed tens of thousands of people.