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Pakistan sees progress after hosting Afghan-Taliban talks

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan said Wednesday that the first official face-to-face discussions between Afghan government officials and the Taliban have made progress, with the two sides agreeing at a meeting near Islamabad to work on confidence-building measures and hold more such talks after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The statement by the Foreign Ministry came after Islamabad hosted the landmark, one-day talks Tuesday at the hilltop resort of Murree, close to the Pakistani capital. The meeting, supervised by U.S. and Chinese representatives, ended with both sides agreeing to meet again, the Foreign Ministry statement said.

The talks came after several informal contacts between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives, most recently in Qatar and Norway. The fact that Tuesday’s talks were the first formally acknowledged by the Afghan government and the semi-public nature of the meeting suggested possible progress, after years of frustration in trying to bring the two sides together.

The Islamabad statement said the participants recognized the need to “develop confidence-building measures” and exchanged views on ways to bring peace and reconciliation to Afghanistan, where fighting has continued since the Taliban were removed from power by U.S.-led forces in 2001.

Since taking office in September, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has made it a priority to find a peace settlement for his war-battered country. He has sought Pakistan’s help in bringing the Taliban to the negotiations, since Islamabad is believed to wield influence over the group.

Afghan forces are now bearing the brunt of the insurgency after the U.S. and NATO forces reduced their combat role in Afghanistan at the start of the year, with Washington cutting its troop presence in the country.

The Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed the development, praising Pakistan and thanking Washington and China. “We believe that if there is a good and strong intention in the peace process, there will be good results,” Kabul said.

Previous efforts to start a dialogue had stalled. Also, there have been differences among the Taliban over the talks in the past. It was not clear whether the Taliban representatives who attended the Pakistan meeting had the green light from their supreme leader, Mullah Omar, or the insurgents’ political office in Qatar, which was specifically set up to work toward a peace deal.

Mullah Omar has not been seen in public for over a decade and the Taliban themselves are divided among various factions and groups. Some of the Afghan insurgents have also recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Analysts believe there is no guarantee all factions would fall in line — even if the talks made significant breakthroughs. Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Washington told a local TV station that with so many groups in the mix, it is likely each would question what it could gain from peace.

“I don’t see a ceasefire anytime soon, say in next six months,” she added.

A Taliban statement emailed to the media in Kabul by the insurgent group’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid did not provide clarity on whether the talks were fully endorsed by the Taliban leadership.

“Our political office has complete authority and capability … to hold or suspend talks whenever or wherever it wants,” Mujahid said.

Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif described the talks as “a major breakthrough.”

Sharif’s close aide, lawmaker Abdul Qayum told a local TV station the latest round was a continuation of an earlier one held in China in February, though Beijing and other officials have not confirmed this. “There’re some Taliban who still don’t want peace. There’re others who want to reconcile,” said Qayum.

The Pakistan and the Afghan government statements did not mention any of the participants by name.

But a Pakistani intelligence official familiar with the meeting said the Taliban delegation was led by Mullah Abbas Stanekza and also included Mullah Jalil, both considered important Afghan Taliban leaders.

Afghan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Karzai led President Ghani’s team, which also included a member of the High Peace Council, Haji Din Mohammad, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

He said Tuesday’s meeting took place at a government rest-house and lasted for hours, starting with an iftar — the evening meal with which Muslims break the daytime fast during Ramadan — and ending with a pre-dawn meal in the early hours Wednesday. The participants talked about working on minimizing civilian casualties at their next meeting, the official added.

Still, Islamabad’s hosting of the talks has raised suspicion among some Afghan politicians, who believe Pakistan is interfering and seeking dominance over their country.

Nasrullah Sadieqizada, an Afghan parliament member, called the talks “Pakistani propaganda.”

The White House praised the Pakistani government for helping facilitate the meeting.

“This is an important step in advancing prospects for a credible peace,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “The United States commends the government of Afghanistan’s prioritization of peace and reconciliation efforts with the Taliban.”

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Associated Press Writers Amir Shah and Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan, Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.

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