Pakistan has hosted a meeting between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban that was also attended by American and Chinese observers, signalling its intention to play a key role in reconciliation efforts in the war-torn country.
The one-day talks between Afghan officials and Afghan Taliban representatives in Murree, a hill resort near Islamabad, ended on Tuesday with the two sides agreeing to meet again after the Islamic fasting month of Ramzan for further talks.
“The participants agreed to continue talks to create an environment conducive for peace and reconciliation process. The next meeting will be held at mutually convenient date after Ramazan,” said a statement issued by Pakistan’s Foreign Office on Wednesday.
This is the first time that Pakistan has publicly acknowledged hosting such a high-level meeting between the militants and Afghan officials on its territory.
Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishments have been involved in several previous efforts to facilitate talks between Afghan officials and the Taliban, mainly with an eye to ensuring Islamabad’s influence over the government in Kabul and limiting India’s role in Afghanistan.
Since President Ashraf Ghani assumed office, he has called on Pakistan to play a greater role in the peace and reconciliation efforts in his country.
Ghani even pushed for a memorandum of understanding between the spy agencies of Pakistan and Afghanistan, angering his Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah.
Pakistan’s Foreign Office said Tuesday’s meeting was “part of the commitment to facilitate an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process”. It added that “representatives of China and the USA also participated in the meeting”.
The participants “expressed their collective desire to bring peace to Afghanistan and the region” and “exchanged views on ways and means to bring peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan”.
The participants also “recognized the need to develop confidence-building measures to engender trust among all stakeholders”, the statement said.
Initial contacts between Afghan officials and Taliban representatives in Qatar broke down in 2013 because of a controversy over the militants using their flag at the opening of an office in Doha.
A fresh start was made when the Taliban and Afghan officials held talks in the Chinese city of Urumqi in May. Observers believe China played a role in the process at the urging of Pakistan.
The participation of US and China observers in Tuesday’s meeting reflected the “international backing for the process” and these countries “were more than facilitators” as they “would be the guarantors if the Afghan government and Taliban eventually struck a deal”, the influential Dawn newspaper quoted a source as saying.
The Afghan delegation at the talks was led by Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai. Other key figures in the Afghan team were Haji Din Mohammad, adviser to President Ghani and a member of the High Peace Council, and Mohammad Natiqi, a representative of Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah.
The Taliban group was led by Mullah Abbas, who hails from Kandahar province and previously served as attorney general in the Taliban regime.
He is considered to be close to Taliban chief Mullah Omar and members of his Shura.Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry joined the talks as a “facilitator”.
The Afghan presidency confirmed the participation of the delegation in the talks through a tweet. “A delegation from the High Peace Council of Afghanistan has travelled to Pakistan for negotiations with the Taliban,” the tweet said.
“This is an icebreaker and this is a historic breakthrough I would say. However, because this is a very old and complicated issue nobody should expect this to happen overnight and neither we need to jump to conclusions whether the process has progressed or not. As long as this meeting takes place and they come out of the meeting with another plan I think it is a good breakthrough,” the Dawn quoted its source as saying.