Shaky Afghan-Taliban peace talks run into Pakistani obstruction (+video)

Recent talks in Dubai may signal a push by Afghan President Karzai to strike a deal with Taliban leaders beyond Pakistan's purview as US troops prepare to leave.

By , Correspondent

The Obama administration is taking steps it hopes could lead to a resumption of peace talks to end the Afghan conflict, including reviving a proposed swap of Taliban detainees held at Guantanamo Bay in return for a US prisoner of war.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has made peace talks with the Taliban one of the preconditions to signing a long-term security pact with the United States, which is preparing to draw down its military presence here after more than a decade.  

But Afghan officials say that Pakistan, which has a longstanding and complex relationship with the Taliban, is sabotaging the Afghan peace process and that the US needs to pressure Pakistan to cooperate fully.

“The majority of the Afghan Taliban leadership are still living in Pakistan and access to them is controlled by the Pakistani government,” said a senior Afghan official with direct knowledge of negotiations between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Taliban.

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In an apparent effort to bypass Pakistan, peace negotiators recently met with Taliban representatives in Dubai. The meeting signaled a renewed push by Afghanistan’s government to seek a negotiated end to the Taliban insurgency ahead of the drawdown of Western troops.

A member of the Taliban delegation was killed, however, after he returned to Pakistan. Abdul Raqeeb, a former minister of refugees under Taliban rule, died Monday after being gunned down in Peshawar. Nobody has claimed responsibility for his killing.  

In a statement, Mr. Karzai said, “Raqeeb sacrificed his life to further the peace process.” He described the Afghan Taliban, who are a separate group from the Pakistani Taliban, as his “brothers,” and asked them to return home and sit down to peace talks.

The US and Afghanistan remain deadlocked over the signing of a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that would allow the US to maintain some of its military bases and up to 10,000 troops for counterterrorism and police training efforts.  

Karzai has balked at signing a BSA. Last week, his government released 65 militants from a former US jail in Kabul, further angering Washington, which said the men were Taliban fighters and that some were directly linked to deadly attacks on NATO troops.

Pakistani role

Karzai has accused the US of trying to hold secret talks with the Afghan Taliban. He has also criticized Pakistan for denying access to senior Afghan Taliban leaders, who retreated to Pakistan after losing power in 2001.  

"Ensuring peace in Afghanistan is directly dependent on America and Pakistan. If US and Pakistan work honestly and cooperate honestly the peace will return in our country," Karzai told a recent press conference in Kabul.

Taliban leaders have previously called Karzai a “puppet or pawn of foreign powers” and refused to negotiate with his administration. So his rejection of the BSA and his release of the 65 militants may be signals to Taliban leaders that he is prepared to offer a peace deal to them.   

Afghan sources say the Taliban are a divided group and that Pakistan capitalizes on this fragmentation by keeping the various parts of the Afghan Taliban from coming together to negotiate with the Afghan government as a united group.

“The biggest challenge to the peace process is the inability of the Taliban to make decisions on political issues and lack of political vision on their part for the future of the country,” said Masoom Stanikzai, the head of the Afghan High Peace Council Secretariat. The 70-member council includes former members of the Taliban, Afghan parliamentarians, and civil society activists appointed by Karzai.

Pakistan denies that it has control over the Afghan Taliban and says it supports the peace process. “Pakistan remains firm in its belief that an inclusive, Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process is of central importance for enduring stability,” its embassy in Kabul said in a statement.

The senior Afghan official said Taliban living in Pakistan are afraid to come to the negotiating table lest they incur Pakistan’s wrath. “When we have spoken individually with Taliban members in Pakistan they have told us that their biggest problem is that if they engage in peace talks with the Afghan government, their lives and their families, who live in Pakistan, are in danger,” the official said.

Afghan officials say that since 2010, the Pakistani government claimed to have released more than 37 mid- to high-level Afghan Taliban members. But they express frustration over Pakistan’s refusal to give details about the militants’ subsequent movements or try to involve them in the peace process.

Taliban cofounder 

One example of what Afghans sees as double-dealing by Pakistan came in September 2013, when Pakistan’s government announced the release of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar from prison. Mr. Baradar, a cofounder of the Afghan Taliban and a senior military commander, was arrested in Pakistan in 2010, reportedly with support from US intelligence.  

Members of the peace council met with Baradar in Pakistan in November and sources close to the process said Baradar may hold the key to stopping the war, given his seniority. He ranks second only to Mullah Omar, the group’s spiritual leader.

However, communication with Baradar has been suspended; Afghan officials say they fear that Pakistan put him under house arrest in order to curb his dealings with Kabul. 

Speaking in Washington, a Pakistani official said last month that Baradar could be allowed to travel to a third country for peace talks. Sartaj Aziz, a senior advisor on national security to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, said Baradar’s status was sensitive because the US saw him a security threat, Reuters reported.

Talks with Taliban leaders aren’t the only plank in the Afghan peace process: reintegration of low-level combatants in Afghanistan is also ongoing, though experts say this is no substitute for a peace deal that encourages fighters to lay down arms. 

Mr. Stanikzai says that the Afghan Peace and Reconciliation Program has handled more than 8,000 combatants, mostly foot soldiers, in 30 provinces since 2010. The peace council runs a biometrics program to store the face and irises of reintegrated fighters so they can be matched against anyone picked up by Afghan security forces, which have access to the biometric database.   

Stanikzai says the reintegration program’s scope sets it apart from previous efforts over the past decade. “The current peace efforts have wider and deeper mandate to end the violence in the country and facilitate reconciliation among Afghans,” he says.

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