WASHINGTON/KABUL - Afghanistan government negotiators and Taliban officials have reportedly opened “unofficial” talks in Turkey to discuss the groundwork for initiating a formal peace dialogue between the government and the insurgent group.
Reports of the preliminary talks between the two sides emerged on Sunday in the Afghan local media with participants alleging that the Turkish government cooperated in launching the direct unofficial talks between both sides.
However, both the Afghan government and the Taliban have tried to distance themselves from the meeting in Turkey.
“Those people who participated in Turkey talks with the Taliban are not representing the Afghan government,” Shah Hussain Mortazavi, a spokesperson to the Afghan president, told VOA.
“Afghan government will inform the Afghan people about any kind of talks to be held with armed opposition,” the spokesperson emphasized.
Similarly, Afghan Taliban also denied that the militant group’s representatives had participated in a meeting with the representatives of the Afghan government.
Zabihullah Mujahid, the insurgent group’s spokesperson reacted to the development on Twitter and charged that the media reports are “baseless.”
Who talked to whom?
With both the Afghan government and the Taliban deny sending their envoys to Turkey on behalf of the government and the Taliban, the question is who were the participants of the Turkey meeting?
The news of talks in Turkey broke when a man, wearing a black turban, claiming to be the chief of the Taliban delegation in Turkey spoke to Tolo TV, Afghanistan’s most viewed private television station, and alleged that he was representing the Taliban movement in informal talks with the Afghan government.
In the more than seven-minute interview conducted via Skype from Turkey, Tolo TV introduced the man as Maulvi Abdul Rauf, the chief negotiator of the Taliban.
Maulvi Abdul Rauf said he represented all Mujahedeen (holy warriors) including Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), the formal name of Taliban.
He also claimed this was the third round of talks taking place between both sides. However, he refused to elaborate on where he came from to take part in the alleged unofficial peace talks.
“I don’t feel a need for telling you where I came from,” Rauf said when asked about how he made it to Turkey.
Two Afghan officials, Abbas Basir and Homayon Jarir, both advisors to the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reportedly held the meeting with five-member delegation of Taliban, headed by Maulvi Abdul Rauf.
Rauf claimed in the interview that he was a former governor of eastern Khost province during the Taliban regime and currently held membership in Taliban leadership circle.
For the first time, a Taliban representative showed his face to media, confirming the start of what he called “informal” negotiations with the Afghan government officials in Turkey.
Previously talks between both sides have been shrouded in secrecy.
Mohammad Karim Khalili , the head of the Afghan Peace Council (APC), the government body tasked with talking with insurgent groups, offered a more nuanced and diplomatic response to the alleged talks.
“Informal contacts with oppositions is continuing. The peace council along with government of Afghanistan are working together to prepare the ground for talks,” Khalili said.
“Afghans and international community are both ready for talks,” Khalili added.
As the Afghan government and the Taliban are both denying having participated in Turkey talks, the Taliban have quietly sent political negotiators to Pakistan from its Qatar-based office amid a new diplomatic push for encouraging peace talks between parties to the Afghanistan war, according local media reports from Pakistan.
A three-member Taliban delegation headed by Shahabuddin Dilawar, a senior member of the Doha office, is reportedly in Islamabad, local media reported Tuesday.
Pakistani officials have not yet commented on the reports. Diplomatic sources in the capital city told VOA that they are “aware" of the arrival of Taliban officials, but refused to speculate on their mission.
Taliban have yet to confirm or deny the arrival of its delegation to Islamabad.
Civil society concerns
Some civil society activists in Afghanistan are concerned over the secrecy of the talks and the denial of parties' participation in negotiations.
Khwaja Hamid Olwi, a civil society activist in Kabul. is not optimistic about the peace talks.
“When all the parties refuse that they had no representative in the talks, it indicates lack of respect for peace talks,” Olwi said.
“That is why people are losing faith in the talks and do not believe (in) such talks,” he added.
Pakistan in the equation
The Afghan peace process has been heavily dependent on Pakistan and Afghanistan and could never fully take control of the talks with the Taliban. The last time both sides held official talks was in 2015 in Murree, a resort town not too far from Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. Pakistan helped launched the talks between both sides and they agreed to meet again in a couple of months. However, the news of the death of Mullah Omar, the Taliban founder and its spiritual leader, postponed the talks indefinitely.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s tough stance on Pakistan and Taliban has somewhat revived the hopes for a breakthrough in the stalled Afghan peace process. However, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khwaja Asif ruled out the influence Islamabad once had on Taliban.
Washington and Kabul think otherwise. The visiting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary Ambassador Alice Wells wrapped up her Islamabad visit on Tuesday with a clear message to Pakistan.
“U.S. South Asia strategy represents an opportunity to work together (with Pakistan) for the establishment of a stable, peaceful Afghanistan, the defeat of ISIS in South Asia, and the elimination of terrorist groups that threaten both Pakistan and the United States,” Wells said.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is equally critical of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan.
Following a meeting with visiting members of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), Ghani’s office released a statement in which the Afghan leader called for more pressure on Pakistan.
In its defense, Pakistan denies safe havens on its soil and maintains that the country has cracked down on all militant groups indiscriminately.