The Afghan Taliban abruptly cancelled the planned visit of their delegation to Pakistan on February 18 to hold the next round of peace talks with the US officials led by Zalmay Khalilzad and attend a meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan.
The Taliban had earlier on February 13 announced the visit to Islamabad through their official spokesman, triggering animated discussion about the need for the meeting in Pakistan a week before the already planned Taliban-US talks in Doha, Qatar on February 25. The Taliban statement about their 14-member negotiating team’s meeting with Pakistan’s prime minister also generated a heated debate, mostly on the uncontrolled social media. If the meeting had indeed taken place, it would have been the first time that a Pakistani prime minister would have publicly met an Afghan Taliban delegation. There was no real possibility of such a meeting, but Imran Khan’s critics had a field day criticising him for something that had yet to happen.
Pakistan’s Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry had confirmed the Taliban delegation’s visit and negotiations with the US officials, terming this a ‘game-changer’ and pointing out that this represented a chance of stability in Afghanistan. Surprisingly though, the US said it had received no official invitation from Pakistan about the talks with Taliban in Islamabad. Rather, US officials made it clear Khalilzad wasn’t planning a visit to Pakistan at that point in time.
The reason Taliban gave for cancellation of their delegation’s trip to Pakistan was travel restrictions as some of their leaders had UN Security Council sanction on them while there were some ‘blacklisted’ by both the UN and the US. However, certain sanctioned Taliban leaders had reportedly travelled overseas in the recent past to attend meetings in Qatar and the UAE and attend conferences in Russia and elsewhere. Apparently, this became possible due to the relaxation obtained for the Taliban leaders from the sanctions by one or the other permanent member of the UN Security Council or those having membership in the sanctions committee to facilitate Taliban participation in peace talks and conferences.
The Afghan government may also have played a role in getting the proposed US-Taliban talks in Islamabad cancelled as it complained to the UN Security Council that Kabul wasn’t consulted about Pakistan’s engagement with the Taliban. It claimed the planned meeting in Islamabad was in violation of the UN Security Council resolution. President Ashraf Ghani’s government had made a similar complaint against Russia for allowing Taliban members to travel to Moscow for the recent conference in which 38 Afghan opposition leaders met Taliban delegation for the first time after the fall of Taliban regime in 2001.
However, the Afghan government could neither stop the Taliban nor the Afghan opposition leaders, including former President Hamid Karzai and presidential candidate Mohammad Hanif Atmar, from travelling to Russia to attend the landmark Moscow conference.
Another ‘news’ that was widely circulated during this period was regarding a likely meeting between a Taliban delegation and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman during the latter’s two-day, high-profile visit to Islamabad. Such a meeting was highly unlikely in view of the fact that neither Pakistan nor Saudi Arabia would have made such a proposal. The Saudi prince’s visit was all about Pakistan-Saudi relations and Islamabad’s efforts to attract investment and a meeting by the Crown Prince with Taliban leaders would have taken the focus away from his trip to Pakistan. Besides, Prince Mohammad bin Salman could easily invite the Taliban delegation to Saudi Arabia if he so desired or ask one of his ministers or advisers to meet it.
Earlier in January when Khalilzad was in Islamabad as part of his four-nation tour to hold consultations on the Afghan peace process, he spent four days as scheduled after having delayed his arrival in Pakistan a few times. This made many in the media believe that Khalilzad was spending more time in Islamabad as he was waiting for a Taliban team to arrive on Pakistan’s persuasion to hold further talks with him. Neither Taliban nor Pakistan had made any such announcement, but this didn’t stop sections of the media and certain analysts to speculate that Pakistan was keen that the two sides should meet in Islamabad to show its clout and play a bigger and more visible role in the Afghan peace process. There are so many speculative or fake stories in the media nowadays that the newsmakers sometimes don’t even bother to get these refuted.
Still the cancellation of the Taliban negotiators’ visit to Pakistan after having been announced first by the Taliban spokesman raised questions whether Islamabad was really keen to host Taliban-US peace talks. This also renewed the debate about the level of Pakistan’s influence on the Taliban. Islamabad has been arguing that its influence on the Taliban has diminished as most of their leaders earlier staying in Pakistan have left for Afghanistan, where Taliban are stated to be in control of nearly half the country, or to other countries. However, Islamabad has also been trying to take credit for facilitating the ongoing peace talks between the Taliban and the US. This is despite the fact that the Taliban spokesman recently claimed it was their decision rather than Pakistan’s to hold peace talks with the Americans.
In fact, one of the persistent Taliban demands has been that the US should hold direct talks with them to decide the timeline for withdrawal of US-led foreign forces from Afghanistan. For the same reason, Taliban have continued to refuse talks with the Afghan government, which they consider powerless to decide the issue of foreign forces’ pullout. Taliban readily agreed when the US accepted their demand for talks between the two sides in July 2018. Since then, the Taliban and American negotiating teams have held several rounds of talks, mostly in Qatar except one round organised in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Abu Dhabi meeting was specifically staged apparently with Pakistan’s help to enable Qatar’s regional Arab rivals Saudi Arabia and the UAE to become involved in the Afghan peace process and play their role in putting pressure on the Taliban to agree to include the Afghan government in the talks and accept a ceasefire.
It isn’t clear what role the Saudis and Emiratis would be able to play in future as Khalilzad is on record having said that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi weren’t happy with the Taliban for refusing to talk to the Afghan government.
It was interesting to note that Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and UAE were the only countries in the world that had formally recognised the Taliban government when Kabul fell in September 1996 and Taliban began rapidly expanding their control in all parts of Afghanistan. The three countries were now trying to play the role of peacemakers by ostensibly using their old contacts with the Taliban.
All eyes are now fixed on Doha where the Taliban and American negotiation teams are scheduled to meet again on February 25 after the unprecedented six-day peace talks in January in which both sides reported progress on two points — that US forces would be withdrawn from Afghanistan and the Taliban would guarantee that the Afghan soil won’t be used in future to undertake attacks against America and other countries. They could make further progress by finalising the draft agreement that was agreed upon in Doha. However, the two sticking points that could hold up a peace agreement would be Taliban refusal to engage in a dialogue with the Afghan government and accept a ceasefire at this stage. Certain confidence building measures such as removal of Taliban names from the UN Security Council ‘blacklist’ and release of their members could soften the Taliban position and help in achieving a breakthrough in the peace talks.