By Mehreen Zahra-Malik and Jibran Ahmad
Senior Pakistani army and diplomatic officials said on Thursday the Afghan Taliban have signalled through the Pakistani military that they are willing to open peace talks.
Previous efforts to negotiate an end to a war that began in late 2001 have proved fruitless, but the latest signals raised hopes of a much-needed boost for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, and for a breakthrough in Afghan efforts to find peace following the withdrawal of most US-led troops last year.
The renewed push for negotiations appeared to be driven by an evolving relationships between Afghanistan, Pakistan and China, which recently offered to help broker talks.
On Thursday, a senior Pakistani military official said Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, told Ghani during a visit this week that the Taliban were willing to begin negotiations as early as March.
“They have expressed their willingness and there will be progress in March. But these things are not so quick and easy,” the official, who is close to the army chief, told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
“But there are very clear signals … and we have communicated it to the Afghans. Now many things are with the Afghans and they are serious,” the official said.
A senior member of the Afghan Taliban said by telephone from Qatar said their negotiators would hold a first round of talks with US officials in Qatar on Thursday.
But US officials in Washington denied that the United States was holding talks with the Taliban. A White House spokeswoman said the United States remained supportive of an Afghan-led reconciliation process in which the Taliban and the Afghan government engaged in talks.
A senior aide to Ghani confirmed that talks were expected, although it had yet to be decided where they would be held.
The aide, who declined to be identified, said the Afghan government had asked that talks be held in Beijing, a nod to China’s recent efforts to help broker an end to the war.
Ghani himself has not directly commented on the possibility of talks but promised transparency.
“I will not conduct any negotiation in secret from my people,” he was quoted as saying in a statement issued by his office.
A senior diplomat in the region said that as well as Beijing, the cities of Islamabad, Kabul and Dubai were being considered as talks venues.
But Taliban representatives – including official spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid – cast doubt on the possibility of talks, saying they still opposed negotiations.
Attempts to get talks going in Qatar in 2013 came to nothing after the Afghan government objected to fanfare surrounding the opening of a Taliban office in the Gulf state.
Exactly what pushed some Taliban towards talks was not clear, but the Afghan war is grinding on with no clear winner.
With the departure of most US and other foreign troops, Afghan security forces are struggling to defeat the insurgency, while the Taliban have been unable to hold much territory.
The Taliban are also is facing a loss of support within Pakistan, which has developed closer relations with Afghanistan since Ghani took power late last year.
Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which has for years been close to the Taliban as it fretted over the influence of India in Afghanistan, have long been marred by mistrust, but Ghani has sought to improve ties.
Pakistani Senator Afrasiab Khattak, who comes from Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on the Afghan border, said Ghani’s efforts led to a commitment by Pakistan to encourage the Taliban to talk – possibly through threatening to end their use of Pakistani soil as a refuge.
“Without sanctuaries, nobody can have sustainable fighting. Those who will talk, will talk. Those who do not agree can face co-ordinated action on both sides of the border,” Khattak said.
Ghani has also lobbied China, which is worried about the spread of militancy in its west, to use its ties with Pakistan to convince it to press the Taliban to talk.
Pakistan, for its part, is pushing the Taliban to agree to talk in exchange for an Afghan promise to capture and hand over the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Mullah Fazlullah, who is believed to be hiding in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani Taliban are separate from the Afghan Taliban although they share the goal of establishing an Islamist theocracy.
The Kabul diplomat warned that any talks might hinge on the Taliban’s reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, who has not been seen in public since 2001.
“The final decision is still upon Mullah Omar … The Taliban leadership is consulting him,” the diplomat said.
The Ghani aide said the Taliban may also be more inclined to talk now in order to settle their position and pre-empt any challenge from Islamic State militants.
Some lower-level Taliban in Afghanistan have declared allegiance to the radical Islamist movement that holds swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria and the Taliban could see the movement as a threat in Afghanistan.