Sitting face to face with top Pakistani officials at the country’s spacious Foreign Office under the glowing lights of a conference hall that regularly hosts meetings between visiting diplomats and Pakistani officials, the 12-member Taliban delegation seemed no less than a foreign mission carrying out state business.
The only exception was their dress – the neatly-pressed black waist-coats over white shalwar kameez with white and black turbans in instead of suits with matching ties.
Adding warmth to the “brotherly” ties with hugs and beaming smiles, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi also donned a shalwar kameez, although the color of his dress was not as brightly white as that of his Taliban interlocutors.
For a moment, it seems hard to believe that many, if not all, of the delegation members were once part of the Taliban’s regime in the mid-90s that would order the chopping of hands and stoning to death of alleged thieves and adulterers in front of awe-stricken crowds in the Kabul soccer stadium. Have they changed?
The arrival of the Taliban delegation in Islamabad and their meeting with Pakistani officials — including the director-general of Pakistan’s prime intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt. General Faiz Hameed — drew both applause and criticism on social media.
“It is yet another opportunity for Afghan Taliban to resolve issues via dialogue instead of violence,” one commentator tweeted while appreciating Pakistan’s role in bringing the Taliban back to talks.
“One wonders what goes through Mullah Baradar’s head: ten years of Pakistani prison and humiliation,” read another tweet.
Yet another commentator wrote in a tweet that “after living in hollow denials for long years, Pakistani state is publicly and officially embracing its Taliban proxies.”
An oddly lengthy statement from Pakistan’s Foreign Office which referred to the visiting delegation as TPC or the Taliban Political Commission, carried only one paragraph from the Taliban in which the latter “appreciated Pakistan’s support for peace in Afghanistan.”
The Islamabad meeting has two immediate outcomes: Taliban freed Indian hostages in exchange for the release of the group’s senior members; and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fired the Foreign Ministry’s spokesman for his welcoming comments regarding the Taliban-Islamabad talks.
Notwithstanding the Taliban’s ruthless campaigns that have killed and maimed thousands of Afghans over the years, their continued opposition to recognizing the constitutionally elected government(s) in Kabul, and their reluctance to condemn terrorism and groups such as al-Qaeda, the Taliban have gained recognition and are being dealt with on a par with the Afghan government in many world capitals.
The treatment they have received in Moscow, Tehran, Beijing, Islamabad and elsewhere has not only augmented their political and diplomatic standing, but also boosted the morale of their field commanders and fighters.
The “Taliban Political Commission” or TPC — a phrase recently coined by Pakistan’s Foreign Office for the insurgents’ Qatar-based leadership — attract wide media coverage wherever they go. Afghans pin more hope on prospects of “peace talks” with the United States than the recently-held presidential election.
Soon after U.S. President Donald Trump declared the peace talks “dead” on September 7, a Taliban delegation landed in Moscow to discuss future lines of action regarding peace in Afghanistan.
Moscow had already hosted a conference in May at which the Taliban leadership was treated as the key delegates, while rest of the Afghan leadership, including former President Hamid Karzai, flocked to the Russian capital to exchange views with the visitors from Qatar on Afghan peace. The conference was formally opened by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Taliban were later quoted as speaking of achieving “decent progress” in the talks.
The Moscow visit was followed by similar appearances in Tehran and Beijing, lending further credence to Taliban diplomatic clout which, in a way, diminishes the authority and credibility of the elected government in Kabul.
Taliban visits to three key capitals – Moscow, Tehran, Beijing – was widely reported in the local and international media.
The head of Taliban delegation to Moscow, Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai, was interviewed by the Kremlin-funded RT network. In his interview, he warned of the Taliban fighting for a “100 years” if the U.S. failed to reach an agreement on Afghanistan peace.
Iranian media, on the other hand, quoting the country’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Musavi, reported that a “Taliban political delegation” discussed the “latest developments in Afghanistan” with Iranian officials.
In Beijing, the nine-member Taliban delegation held talks with China’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Deng Xijun in September. The visit was announced by the Taliban spokesman on his Twitter account. Later, Chinese Foreign Minister spokesman Geng Shuang, confirming the visit, told media that “China’s relevant foreign ministry official exchanged opinion with (Mullah) Baradar regarding the situation in Afghanistan.”
A separate Taliban delegation visited China while the peace talks between U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban Qatar office were in progress and many were upbeat about a positive outcome.
The welcoming reception of Taliban delegations in neighboring capitals is further boosting the group’s confidence. Once a pariah, despite holding the Afghan capital, the Taliban are now treated as a parallel government. Yet, the violence continues.
With $780 billion spent in U.S. military operations and economic assistance, the sacrifice of nearly 2,400 U.S. soldiers and countless Afghan lives, the Taliban have gained more strength along with recognition over the past 18 years.
According to NBC News, U.S. officials stated that the number of Taliban fighters as 20,000 in 2014. That number has soared to 60,000, according to officials in January 2018. Among the 398 Afghan districts, at the time of the report the Taliban were said to control over 45 while battling for another 117 districts.
With military strength in hand and clearly expanding diplomatic the recognition, can anyone truly believe that the Taliban will agree to something less than a lead role in Afghanistan?
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.