ISLAMABAD, KABUL: US-backed peace talks with the Afghan Taliban are part of a "complex process," Pakistan's foreign office spokesman said on Saturday, as insurgents rejected reports they were prepared to resume meetings with US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Islamabad.
Since their last meeting in Abu Dhabi in December, dialogue between the US and the Taliban to find a negotiated settlement to an 18-year-long war in Afghanistan has largely stalled, particularly over the US insistence that insurgents talk directly with the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
The Taliban have so far refused direct talks with the Kabul government which they see as an illegitimate, foreign-appointed regime, and consider their main adversary to be the US, which invaded the country in 2001 and toppled their rule.
“It [negotiations] is a complex process. It isn’t a casual thing and cannot be decided in a meeting or two,” Foreign Office spokesman Dr. Mohammad Faisal told Arab News on Saturday, calling the peace talks “a sensitive issue that needs to be handled carefully.”
Khalilzad arrived in Islamabad on Thursday to pursue diplomatic efforts to push forward talks with the Afghan Taliban and met with top civilian and military leaders, including Prime Minister Imran Khan, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
“I look forward to concrete progress,” Khalilzad tweeted after his meeting with the Pakistani foreign minister, adding that Pakistan had assured him of support for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan.
U.S. and Afghan officials have long been pushing Pakistan to lean on Taliban leaders, who they say are based inside Pakistan, to bring them to the table for talks. Pakistani officials deny offering safe havens to the Afghan Taliban and say their influence on the group has waned over the years.
“Pakistan fully supports the process and is playing its role for a negotiated settlement,” the foreign office spokesman said. “Negotiations are underway and nothing can be ruled out at this stage.”
Khalilzad has held at least three rounds of talks with the Taliban in recent months, with the last round taking place in the United Arab Emirates in December, in the presence of representatives from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
In a statement sent to media, the Afghan Taliban rejected Pakistani media reports that Taliban officials had met with Khalilzad in Islamabad.
“The rumors about a meeting between representatives of the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) with American envoy Khalilzad in Islamabad are not true,” Zabihullah Mujahid said.
A Taliban leader told Reuters peace talks with the US delegation could resume if a US withdrawal from Afghanistan, an exchange of prisoners and lifting a ban on the movement of Taliban leaders were the only issues discussed.
“The Taliban seem unwilling to revive talks with the US until a schedule of withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan is given to them,” Taliban affairs expert Rahimullah Yousufzai said. “Pakistan is using its influence, but nothing concrete is achieved so far.”
Indeed, to avoid pressure from Pakistan, the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia, the Taliban have said they prefer to hold talks with the U.S. envoy in Qatar where the Taliban have had an office for years.
For now, talks have stalled and there is no clarity on when they will be resumed.
"Peace efforts have indeed run into some difficulties, perhaps because the initial facilitating and confidence building steps were burdened by over-enthusiastic demands and unrealistic expectations," said Omar Zakhilwal, a former Afghan ambassador to Islamabad. "Suspicions and rivalries among regional stakeholders have also not helped."