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Pakistan presses Taliban to peace talks with Kabul

Pakistan’s top military and intelligence officials have begun pressing the Taliban to sit down for face-to-face discussions with the Afghan government, potentially opening a path for direct peace talks for the first time since the start of the American-led invasion in 2001, according to Western and Afghan officials briefed on the discussions.

In meetings in Kabul this week, the Pakistani delegation, led by the nation’s army chief of staff, told Afghan leaders that the Taliban appeared willing to meet for negotiations in the coming month, according to Western officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are private.

If true, that would be a sharp reversal both for the insurgents, who have fought a deadly 13-year campaign against the government, and for the Pakistani military, which has long been accused of nurturing the Afghan Taliban as proxies.

Afghan and Western officials cautioned that efforts to bring the insurgent group to the table still face major hurdles. Among them is securing the blessing of the Taliban’s reclusive spiritual leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, who has not been seen since the start of the war and whose approval is a precondition for talks. As well, the ability of the Pakistani officials to secure the participation of what has become a fractious insurgent movement also remains unclear.

Although Pakistani officials have told the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, that the movement’s central organization, the Quetta Shura, is amenable to negotiations, many Afghans remain doubtful of their neighbor’s sincerity. The relationship between the two countries has been marked by distrust and intrigue for years.

But Afghan and Western officials insist that both sides are willing to shed their historical baggage. The officials say that in applying pressure on the Taliban, the Pakistanis are said to have warned the insurgents that if they do not join the talks, they will be driven from their sanctuaries. And Pakistan’s willingness to confront the Taliban was perceived by Western and Afghan officials as an important sign that relations between Kabul and Islamabad were warming.

Pakistani military officials would not comment on the meetings.

The diplomatic opening has come after months of active outreach to Pakistani officials by Mr. Ghani, who has sought to reverse the course his predecessor took in demonizing the Pakistanis. Afghan officials say that Mr. Ghani was convinced that the Pakistani military, in particular, held the keys to engaging the Taliban. He held several closed-door meetings where he offered extensive security assistance for the promise that the Pakistani military would try to persuade the Taliban to join talks, officials said.

The Pakistani military also faces intense domestic pressure to continue cracking down on militants, including those that it once aided. A gruesome attack by the Pakistani Taliban against a school in Peshawar in December heightened the urgency. And the country recently named a new army chief of staff, Raheel Sharif, as well as a top spy for the nation’s intelligence service, Rizwan Akhtar, providing an opportunity for a fresh start, Western officials say.

“There seems a relative clarity in the new military leadership about the threat of terrorism,” said Afrasiab Khattak, a Pakistani senator.

An added wild card is the recent inclusion of China in the mix, which has also been encouraged by Mr. Ghani. China, which received at least one Taliban delegation late last year, has also offered to mediate peace talks. And last week, the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, while visiting in Islamabad, publicly offered his government’s help in facilitating negotiations.

From the beginning, Mr. Ghani has viewed a closer relationship with Pakistan as central to peace. He ordered his spy agency to assist Pakistan in hunting the militants responsible for the Peshawar school massacre, who were said to be hiding in Afghanistan. With his blessing, an American drone fired on a target within Afghanistan based on Pakistani intelligence, officials said.

But the outreach comes with significant political risk at home for Mr. Ghani. While much of this cooperation occurred beneath the radar, the Pakistani military leadership has visited the presidential palace on at least three occasions, alienating a number of major Afghan political figures. Some Afghan officials clearly doubt that Pakistan is sincere about encouraging peace.

Others simply resent Mr. Ghani, who they fear is granting Pakistan too much influence in the palace. Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf, a former anti-Taliban commander, recently likened Mr. Ghani’s efforts to warm relations between the neighbors to a “dictatorial” move.

Past efforts to establish talks have borne little fruit. In 2013, a highly anticipated Taliban political office opened in Qatar to host talks between the Americans and the insurgent group. But the effort quickly fizzled after the Taliban introduced what appeared to be an embassy, replete with a flag and sign declaring “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the name of the former Taliban government. Angered by what he perceived as an effort to marginalize him, as well as by the brazen attitude of the Taliban, the president at the time, Hamid Karzai, halted the effort.

This time around, Mr. Karzai is not expected to stand in the way, according to a former Afghan official who is close to the former president, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss Mr. Karzai’s private views.

Behind it all, however, the motivations of the Taliban remain opaque — especially as they seemed to make significant gains in fighting the Afghan security forces last year, dealing a record number of casualties.

Even if the insurgents do come to the table, there are still profound challenges ahead. To start, there is no guarantee of a cease-fire accompanying any potential talks. And if Mr. Ghani’s administration successfully persuaded a significant portion of the fractious militant movement to put down its weapons, the effect that would have on day-to-day violence would be a major question.

The war has altered the composition of the Taliban. More than a decade of night raids and airstrikes have culled their leadership ranks. A younger generation of fighters has moved in to replace them, often more radical and less connected to the central leadership of the Quetta Shura, an aged group that has spent the war on the sidelines in Pakistan.

“Radical splinter groups have emerged within the Taliban and continue to gain prominence,” according to a December United Nations report on the Taliban. “These splinter groups are strongly opposed to any negotiation with the government of Afghanistan.”

Perhaps more troubling is the rise of criminality in Afghanistan, which is often mistaken for Taliban violence. Though these entities sometimes operate under the flag of the Taliban, they run drugs, smuggle gems and perpetrate kidnappings for ransom, behavior unlikely to change in the event of a peace deal with the Quetta Shura.

The impending challenges were underscored the very day that the Pakistani Army chief, General Sharif, came to deliver the news about potential talks to Mr. Ghani. Four suicide bombers stormed the police headquarters of Logar, the province where Mr. Ghani was born, killing more than 20 officers in one of the deadliest attacks in nearly a year.

Meanwhile, back in Kabul, General Sharif shared a glimpse of what many Afghans, Mr. Ghani chief among them, hope is a new policy for Pakistan.

“Enemies of Afghanistan are enemies of Pakistan,” he said during his unannounced visit to Kabul.

Source: The New York Times

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