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Afghans and Taliban meet for the first time

An Afghan government delegation met with Taliban officials in the Pakistani capital for the first time on Tuesday, in a significant effort to open formal peace negotiations, according to Afghan, Pakistani and Western officials.

The Islamabad meeting, brokered by Pakistani officials after months of intense effort by President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan to get them more centrally involved in the peace process, was the most promising contact between the two warring sides in years. And it followed a series of less formal encounters between various Afghan officials and Taliban representatives in other countries in recent months.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that the participants had agreed to continue the talks, with another meeting to be held after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

A peace process that would lead to the Taliban ending their insurgency has long been seen as a crucial part of the American strategy to stabilize Afghanistan after a costly 14-year war. But previous promising moments in that effort, including the formal opening of a Taliban political office in Qatar in 2013, either fizzled or backfired.

That may be the case now, as well: No sooner had the talks begun than it became apparent that the Taliban were divided about whether to engage in a process facilitated by Pakistan.

In an email exchange with a New York Times reporter early Wednesday morning, a representative of the Taliban’s official political office in Qatar said that the delegates to the Islamabad meeting were “not authorized” to attend such meetings, and suggested they had been “hijacked” by Pakistan’s powerful intelligence service to appear.

“We see it as the wrong direction toward peace, and the Pakistani-led process may cause more problems instead of solutions,” the official wrote. Later, the official added: “We will continue our political efforts for peaceful solution of the Afghan conflict.”

Afghan and Western officials did not identify the Taliban representatives who attended the meeting on Tuesday. They described the delegates as significant, including some Taliban officials who had gone to the previous, less-formal talks.

One senior Western official familiar with the meeting in Islamabad said that “we know there are senior leaders” involved. The official compared the apparent dispute between the Taliban representatives in Islamabad and the insurgent officials in Qatar to bureaucratic infighting seen in any large organization, and said that Western officials did not consider it a sign of fractiousness within the insurgency.

But, the official added, “I’m not saying that somewhere down the line we might not see some of that, but I don’t think this is it.”

There was no statement from the Taliban’s main spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, about the meeting or who attended. Some Taliban officials had denied or played down the significance of the previous meetings as well, despite confirmation from other officials present at those discussions.

Officials from the United States and China were at the meeting as observers on Tuesday, Western officials said, and were expected to attend a follow-up session on Wednesday. China has played a growing role in trying to broker peace talks in recent months.

On the Afghan side, officials said the delegation was led by Hekmat Karzai, the deputy foreign minister and a prominent cousin of the previous Afghan president. The delegation also included a member of the government’s high peace council, and several important regional representatives, officials said.

Though the officials characterized the meeting as a promising potential step toward peace talks, they were cautious about the prospects. Afghan officials said the talks were mainly to set up a framework for further discussions, including setting up confidence-building measures both sides should take, and listing possible issues for negotiation.

In the past, both the Afghan government and the Taliban have been wary of using Pakistan as a go-between for discussions. For its part, the Afghan government has long feared that the Pakistani military would scuttle any peace talks in hopes of using the Afghan Taliban, its traditional ally, as a proxy force to maintain its influence over Afghan affairs.

Mr. Ghani’s all-out effort to court Pakistani officials and get them involved in talks has cost him substantial political capital at home, where Pakistan is widely viewed with suspicion. His political opponents, including members of former President Hamid Karzai’s inner circle, have vehemently criticized Mr. Ghani as having misplaced his trust in the Pakistanis, and selling out Afghanistan in the process.

For their part, elements of the Afghan Taliban, even as they have found shelter in Pakistan, have chafed at their vulnerability to the country’s military and intelligence forces. That, in part, is why the group opened a political office in Qatar and insisted that official diplomatic communications go through there.

Despite the Taliban’s skepticism about Pakistani pressure, it is clear that the insurgents have been more willing to talk than ever before. In a year where the Taliban are making some of their biggest gains on the battlefieldever, they have simultaneously intensified their publicity efforts casting them as a legitimate political force. And the patter of informal meetings with Afghan officials abroad this year has been taken by some officials as a sign that the insurgents will eventually be more willing to negotiate once the fighting season is over.

In a June email exchange with the Taliban official in Qatar, he wrote that the new willingness to talk was a natural outgrowth of the insurgents’ stronger military position.

“Political progress is connected to military progress,” said the Taliban official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media. “The more the military achievements increase, the more the political efforts and activities increase.”

Still, for the past decade, the Taliban have mostly expressed a desire to discuss a possible settlement to the war not with Afghanistan, but with the United States, which it considers the real power behind the Kabul government. Even there, intermittent efforts to establish such talks have largely faltered.

The one deal American officials struck with the Taliban through their Qatar delegation — the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was being held in captivity, in exchange for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — proved to be a one-time deal, despite anticipation that it might lead to more sustained negotiations.

Even if serious talks with the Afghans were to begin, one concern among some Western and Afghan officials is that lower-level Taliban commanders might bridle or even split away from the group’s senior leadership in frustration, especially given their recent battlefield gains.

In recent months, too, the Taliban have faced an unanticipated threat that could intensify their risk of splintering: the emergence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. That group, though not yet thought to pose a significant military threat in Afghanistan, has quickly managed to attract a wide array of disaffected Taliban leaders and other insurgents who doubt that the Taliban’s reclusive leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, is even alive. The Islamic State has managed to push the Taliban out of at least one district in the eastern province of Nangarhar, and skirmishes between the two groups have broken out in several provinces.

The Islamic State’s appearance in Afghanistan could persuade the Taliban to seek a political settlement to the war if the Taliban leadership believes fighters will continue to defect to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. “The Taliban strategy of patiently fighting may no longer work, withISIS here,” said a Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They’re very alarmed by this.”

On the other hand, the diplomat said, the Islamic State’s growing relevance could reduce the possibility of peace talks. Under that scenario, any move to negotiate peace would have the effect of speeding up defections to the rival group. “The question, of course, is whether these Taliban leaders can carry the fighters with them, or whether the leaders immediately lose their followers the moment they talk about peace,” the diplomat said.

Source: The New York Times

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