The Afghan government publicly confirmed Tuesday that a delegation from the High Peace Council has traveled to Islamabad, Pakistan, to engage in talks with the Taliban. Details are limited, and what is known has been gathered from anonymous comments made by Western diplomats as well as Afghan and Pakistani officials.
The Afghan government has pressed for a political solution to the conflict with the Taliban, engaging in a series of informal talks facilitated by Qatar, Norway and China this year. The May meetings in Urumqi, China were organized by Pakistan. The meeting was attended by three members of the old Taliban government and Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, at the time a member of the High Peace Council and as of July 4 the second nominee for Afghan Defense Minister to be rejected by the parliament. The Urumqi meeting was disavowed by the Taliban, as represented by the official political office based in Qatar–which said the men who attended were not official representatives.
According to The Guardian, the Islamabad talks are to take place over iftar–an evening meal at which Muslims break their Ramadan fast. The Express Tribune reported that Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai, a cousin of former President Hamid Karzai, was leading the delegation and that Haji Deen Muhammad, the former governor of Nangarhar province, was attending as well. The Express Tribune reported that the Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, said he had no information about the talks. It is not clear whether the Taliban in attendance are “official” or the same men that met in Urumqi or another set of Taliban representatives, though the Afghan government certainly seems to have framed the talks as more official than previous sessions.
Sources say American and Chinese officials are sitting in on the Afghan-Taliban talks.
Formal peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government have been elusive. While both the Taliban and the Afghan government have said that a political solution is the only way to end the conflict, for much of the past decade the Taliban were more interested in negotiating an American exit from the war than dealing with the government in Kabul. Meanwhile, the U.S. insisted that peace talks be “Afghan led” but then-President Hamid Karzai’s relationship with Pakistan, which is largely seen as the key to getting the Taliban to the table, was acrimonious.
President Ashraf Ghani’s seeming rapprochement with Pakistan may have contributed to renewed hopes of a negotiated peace. But slight progress in diplomacy has had no impact on the battlefield. Afghan security forces, facing the first fighting season after the end of the U.S.-led coalition combat mission, have been under considerable strain. Despite some shining moments in which Afghan security forces have fared well, there have been considerable tragedies both in Kabul and across Afghanistan’s northern provinces.
The Taliban, ostensibly still led by Mullah Omar (who no one seems to be sure is still alive), has fractured between field commanders carrying on the fight in Afghanistan and political leadership based outside of the country, mostly in Pakistan. While Ghani’s strategy in wooing Pakistan into helping press the Taliban leadership to the table might, one day, turn into a peace process–the Afghan government will still need to deal with the fighters in the field.