ISLAMABAD - A senior official in Afghanistan said Wednesday that a team of state representatives will begin formal peace negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar “early next week” to try to negotiate a political solution to the country’s long war.
Mustafa Mastoor, the Afghan Minister of Economy, said the peace process has “opened a new chapter of hope” in the war-torn country’s history and both sides needs to seize it. He was speaking to an online forum arranged by a Pakistan-based think tank, the Lahore Center For Peace Research (LCPR).
“Negotiations will hopefully start early next week. The Islamic Republic (of Afghanistan) side is fully prepared for a good and a positive start and expects the Taliban side to have the same intentions,” said the Afghan minister.
The much-awaited first ever formal peace talks between Afghan warring sides are a product of the agreement the U.S. signed with the Taliban in February to close the nearly 19-year-old war with the Islamist insurgency and withdraw American troops from the country.
Mastoor stressed both sides will need to be ready for compromises to seize “the narrow window for peace” created after years of hostilities to help sustain the dialogue.
“Considering the global experience, they will start with easier issues, moving towards the tougher ones at the later stage. Knowing this noble goal, maximum flexibility and concessions will be needed by both sides,” the Afghan minister stressed.
Mastoor went on to caution that the level of exceptions in the run-up to the talks is “realistically low” considering the complexity of the war.
“A win win at the end of the process could be difficult but accommodation of a possible maximum views of both sides for an agreed efficient governance system are feasible and possible,” he said.
Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen told VOA on Tuesday that his group stands by the agreement with the U.S. and will enter negotiations with an intention to find a solution to the Afghan war provided the other side also intends to do so, underscoring the deeply rooted mutual trust deficit.
The agreement calls on all American and coalition troops to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in return for the Taliban’s counterterrorism guarantees and a pledge to open negotiations with other Afghan groups.
The U.S. military drawdown has already started, bringing the number of U.S. troops from around 13,000 at the time of the singing of the deal to around 8,600. President Donald Trump has said there will be less than 5,000 troops left in Afghanistan by the November U.S. presidential elections.
The intra-Afghan talks were to be launched in early March but they were delayed because of a controversial prisoner swap between the Afghan government and the Taliban, as stipulated in the agreement.
Kabul has promised to release a last group of 400 Taliban prisoners this week that will conclude the swap, removing the last hurdle in the way to peace negotiations.
The government, which was not part of the agreement, was required to free a total of 5,000 insurgent inmates in exchange for 1,000 Afghan security personnel the Taliban was holding captive.
The insurgents freed all the detainees and they are waiting for their remaining prisoners to be released before coming to the negotiating table.
Critics remain skeptical about whether the Taliban will stick to its commitments and desist from attempting to regain power after the withdrawal of international forces.
Michael Kugelman, a Washington-based South Asian affairs’ expert, while speaking at Wednesday’s online conference warned that foreign troop drawdown is strengthening the Taliban’s bargaining power and leverage ahead of their talks with Afghan rivals.
“The Taliban knows that potentially it could have a major battlefield advantage and it could easily decide to leave talks and return to the fight if it seas U.S. troops continuing to leave,” observed Kugelman.
“The more quickly U.S. troops leave Afghanistan once peace talks start the less likely that there will be a Taliban peace deal,” the U.S. expert noted.
Afghan Minister Mastoor in his speech, however, saw the talks with the Taliban a rare opportunity for bringing peace to the country and the region.
“We all know that it was not possible without the support of regional and international players, specifically Pakistan and the United States,” Mastoor noted in his speech Wednesday.
Pakistan, where Taliban leaders have for years sheltered among several million Afghan refugees the country still hosts, facilitated the U.S.-Taliban deal by bringing senior insurgent representatives to the negotiating table two years ago.
The presence of insurgents in the neighboring country has long been a primary source of Kabul’s political tensions with Islamabad.
“I think the current peace process is another test for both countries. Pakistan, as a neighbor and as a country closer to Taliban, can play a significant role in the peace process and its success as they already played,” Mastoor said.
Pakistani officials, however, insist that promoting normal ties, particularly economic and trade connectivity, with landlocked Afghanistan is at the center of Islamabad’s policy toward the neighboring country.
“The intra-Afghan process that begins in about a week’s time is really an Afghan process,” said Moeed Yusuf, an assistant on national security to the Pakistani prime minister.
Yusuf made the remarks on Monday while delivering a public talk at an online forum arranged by Washington’s Atlantic Council think tank.
“Pakistan and others will help as much as we can, but we are really desperately hoping for is a constant process that gets to a solution of whatever the Afghans want for their country and you will find Pakistan supporting that,” Yusuf said.