ISLAMABAD/KABUL (Reuters) - Pakistan-brokered peace talks between Afghanistan and Taliban insurgents could restart in early January after weeks of pressure from partners including the United States and China, officials in Islamabad and Kabul said.
The head of Pakistan’s army, General Raheel Sharif, is expected in Afghanistan this week in the latest in a series of high-level contacts between Islamabad and Kabul to restart the peace process which was broken off in July.
The aim is to end more than 14 years of war with the Taliban, who held power in Afghanistan until 2001 but were overthrown in a U.S.-backed campaign for harboring the al Qaeda leaders behind the Sept. 11 attacks. Since then they have waged a potent insurgency against the Kabul government, stepping up their attacks since the pullout of most foreign troops in 2014.
A senior Pakistani official told Reuters the resumption of talks should take “not longer than two weeks ... I would say the first week of January we will see the process restart again.”
He said the current plan was for the meetings to be held in Pakistan. The aim was to bring Afghan and Pakistani leaders together with special representatives from China and the United States as well as Taliban representatives.
“The understanding is that all stakeholders should be there, everyone with a stake in this,” said the official, requesting anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media on the issue.
According to a Taliban official in the movement’s office in Qatar, Pakistan had also asked deputy Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of a Taliban-affiliated network blamed for a spate of recent suicide attacks in Kabul, to join the talks.
But after repeated failed efforts, prospects for any immediate breakthrough appear distant, with a high risk the process may “crash soon after takeoff”, in the words of one senior Afghan official who has been closely involved.
“The Taliban are suffering from leadership chaos and the movement is fractured and it is not clear who is going to talk and which side is going to continue to fight,” said the official, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
An earlier round of talks in the Pakistani hill resort of Murree came to a halt in July, when confirmation came that the Taliban’s elusive leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had in fact been dead for more than two years.
His successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, has faced strong opposition from rival insurgent factions and the Taliban were recently forced to deny widespread reports he had been badly wounded or even killed in a shootout during an internal dispute.
Islamic State has also been posing a growing challenge, fuelling fears that Taliban leaders will be reluctant to be drawn into talks for fear of losing credibility among rank-and-file militants who have been buoyed by a string of battlefield successes. If the Taliban were to stop fighting, they might be tempted to switch allegiance to IS.
After insurgent fighters managed to seize the northern city of Kunduz in late September and hold it for several days against U.S.-backed government troops, the motivation for joining peace talks is also not clear.
High-profile insurgent attacks in the southern city of Kandahar and on a Spanish embassy guest house in Kabul, as well as Taliban gains in its heartland province of Helmand, have scotched hopes of a letup in violence over the winter.
“As long as there are invading forces in Afghanistan, our policy regarding the so-called peace negotiations will not change,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, referring to the insurgents’ long-held demand for the departure of foreign forces.
It is also uncertain whether any Taliban faction can claim to speak for the movement as a whole, raising the prospect that talks will be sabotaged by groups opposed to peace.
“If some people start peace talks, others will accelerate attacks to make the peace process fail,” said a third Taliban leader, who said military commanders were increasingly acting independently of top leaders.
Three senior Taliban members, two based in Pakistan and one in Qatar, said Islamabad had asked insurgent leaders to take part in the talks, although with the leadership issue unresolved, none believed negotiations would lead anywhere.
“The situation is getting worse day by day so the most important thing for the Taliban is to resolve the internal crisis instead of holding peace talks with Kabul,” said one Taliban commander based in Pakistan.
To succeed, participants in the talks will also have to overcome the deep mistrust between Kabul and Islamabad over how much influence Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency wields over the insurgency.
Afghan officials generally take it as a matter of fact that Pakistan sponsors the insurgency to exert control over its northern neighbor, while Pakistan denies harboring either the Afghan Taliban or the Haqqanis.
Pakistan’s involvement in the peace process, while strongly encouraged by the United States and others, has fueled opposition in Afghanistan and was one of the major factors in the resignation of the head of its main intelligence agency this month.
Officials on both sides say the talks will be difficult but with no prospect of defeating the insurgency on the battlefield, they see no alternative.
“It is a very complicated process and we have to take steps very cautiously,” said an Afghan official.
Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmed in Peshawar and Katherine Houreld in Islamabad; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Robert Birsel and Mark Trevelyan