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Afghan Taliban may return to negotiating table

The main faction of the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Akhtar Mansoor may return to the negotiating table with Afghan government representatives despite escalating violence in Kabul which has dented peace efforts.

The Taliban expressed their willingness to resume the fledgling peace process following recent talks between the group’s interlocutors and Pakistani authorities in Islamabad, officials familiar with the development told The Express Tribune on Sunday. All of them spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. Last week, a three-member delegation from the Taliban’s Qatar office travelled to Pakistan as part of the latest efforts to revive the fragile reconciliation process.  Although the Taliban insisted the delegation visited Pakistan to discuss issues related to Afghan refugees and the border, officials said the trip’s objective was to explore the possibility of direct talks with Kabul.

One official with knowledge of the interaction between the Taliban delegation and Pakistani authorities claimed the group expressed willingness to participate in dialogue. However, the Taliban wanted to extract certain concessions such as release of some prisoners currently held in Pakistan and Afghanistan before engaging in direct talks, the official said.

It is believed that Chinese representatives also attended talks between the Pakistani officials and the Taliban delegation.

The official said Pakistan and China conveyed a clear message to the Taliban that a conducive environment was paramount for any negotiations.  “For this purpose, we told the Taliban delegation that they have to agree on cessation of violence inside Afghanistan,” the official disclosed.

Both Pakistan and China are concerned at the uptick in attacks by the Taliban in Afghanistan. They fear that continued violence in the war-torn country will dash any hopes for an elusive Afghan peace deal.

Already, efforts to craft a political solution have suffered a near-lethal blow in the wake of last month’s deadly attack in Kabul that left at least 64 people dead. In the aftermath of the audacious attack, President Ashraf Ghani said his country will no longer seek Pakistan’s help for peace talks. He urged Pakistan to honour its commitment to take action against the Taliban, including the Haqqani network, which, according to him, is operating from Pakistan. Despite Ghani’s outburst, Pakistan and China decided to continue making efforts for peace and stability in Afghanistan.

At a news conference last week, Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry neither confirmed nor denied the visit of the Taliban delegation. However, he did say that Pakistan along with other Quadrilateral Coordination Group members was still making efforts to arrange direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Islamabad had brokered the first-ever direct talks in July last year. However, the process broke down after the confirmation of the death of longtime Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

In December, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the United States launched fresh efforts seeking a peaceful end to the conflict in Afghanistan. Senior officials from these four countries held several meetings to work out a roadmap for peace talks and agreed to arrange the first round in Pakistan in the first week of March.

However, the talks had to be called off after the Taliban decided to stay away from the peace process. (The Express Tribune)

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