December 17, 2018
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan-organized peace talks involving U.S. and Taliban officials took place in the United Arab Emirates Monday.
Government officials were not immediately available to discuss details of the meeting.
The special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, led the U.S. team in talks that included envoys from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the host country, Taliban and Pakistani officials told VOA.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the group’s representatives at the talks spoke only to the U.S. team and had no plans to speak with officials from Afghanistan’s National Unity Government (NUG). Taliban officials said reports to the contrary were “propaganda.”
Taliban, Afghan government included in talks
The talks in Abu Dhabi are the latest attempt to bring about a negotiated end to the 17-year-long war, and come after Russia hosted peace talks last month in Moscow. Those talks did not include representatives from the Afghan government.
A senior Pakistani government official, who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity, said the Abu Dhabi round was the first time in three years that Afghan government officials and Taliban representatives both attended a peace talks meeting.
“This is a feat much more important in its impact than the Russians’ initial success to bring the Taliban to table without NUG,” the official told VOA.
In the run-up to Monday’s talks, Pakistani officials told VOA in background interviews the U.S. has directly engaged the Taliban since July to promote a political settlement to the Afghan war but said Washington still has “no clear plan” on how to further the peace process.
Trump administration officials have hardened the U.S. position on Pakistan, suspending hundreds of millions of dollars in aid for what the officials say is Islamabad’s unwillingness to act decisively against the Taliban. Pakistani authorities reject that charge, and point to the thousands of troops who have been killed fighting militants in the volatile Afghan border region.
Islamabad has long urged in talks with the U.S. that rival India’s growing influence in Afghanistan is a matter of concern for Pakistan. Security officials blame Indian intelligence operatives for supporting militants planning terrorist attacks in Pakistan from Afghan soil, charges both Kabul and New Delhi reject.
US welcomes Pakistan’s role
Pakistan’s prime minister rallied support for the peace talks in an address Friday in the northwestern city of Peshawar, saying his country has agreed to assist Afghan peace efforts because Washington has changed its position by requesting help, instead of saying Islamabad is not doing enough.
A spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Saturday hailed Prime Minister Imran Khan’s remarks and support for a political reconciliation in the war-ravaged neighboring country.
“The United States welcomes any actions by the Pakistani government to promote greater cooperation, including fostering negotiations between the Taliban, the Afghan government, and other Afghans,” the spokesperson told VOA.
“Special Representative Khalilzad has met, and will continue to meet, with all interested parties, including the Taliban, to support a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan,” noted the U.S. embassy official.
In his speech on Friday, Prime Minister Khan said that if peace were achieved in Afghanistan, his country will be the immediate beneficiary in terms of security, economic stability and regional connectivity.
Khalilzad is visiting regional countries to gather support for Afghan peace talks. His 18-day trip is due to end on Tuesday during which he also visited Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Belgium.
Roads to peace
Pakistani officials privy to Khalilzad’s interaction with the Taliban have told VOA that until now, no progress has been achieved because the insurgents adamantly demand “a date or timeframe” for all U.S. and NATO troops to withdraw from Afghanistan before the Taliban decide to participate in an intra-Afghan peace process.
Analysts remain skeptical on whether renewed Pakistani efforts would lead to an end of Afghan hostilities.
Previous U.S. administrations rejected offers from Pakistan to facilitate a political solution with insurgent elements, notes policy research analyst Adam Weinstein, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Afghanistan.
“Recreating this missed opportunity nearly two decades later will prove difficult,” Weinstein told VOA. He observed that Washington “still ascribes” to Pakistan the ability to greatly influence the Taliban both positively and negatively.
“While Pakistan still has the power to prolong the conflict, its ability to resolve it is diminished. Translating talks into sustainable solutions will require long-term commitment from all relevant actors, which is difficult to achieve amid ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and worsening U.S.-Pakistan ties,” Weinstein cautioned.
Washington has long maintained Taliban leaders are sheltering in Pakistan with covert support from the country’s intelligence agency. Washington has been urging Islamabad to use its influence to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table.
Pakistani officials say their influence over the Taliban has significantly declined over the years because the insurgents have gained control over large areas of Afghanistan and continue to pose serious battlefield challenges for U.S.-backed Afghan security forces.
The United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan 17 years ago and the war with the Taliban has since killed nearly 150,000 people, including Afghan civilians, security forces, insurgents and more than 2,400 American soldiers, according to an American University study released recently
The longest war effort in U.S. history has also cost Washington nearly one trillion dollars. The Taliban instead has expanded its insurgent activities and currently controls or hotly contests about half of Afghanistan.
The conflict is said to have killed more Afghan civilians and security forces in 2018 than in any other year.