Pakistan role critical in Afghanistan endgame

Pakistan role critical in Afghanistan endgame

ISLAMABAD: After more than a month of delay, escalating violence and a flurry of diplomatic activity peace talks between the Taliban and Kabul have resumed in Qatar, with Pakistan seen as critical to pushing the Afganistan-based insurgent group to reduce violence and eventually, agree on an outright ceasefire.

Taliban spokesman Dr Mohammad Naeem tweeted Monday night that talks had resumed in Doha, where the insurgent movement maintains a political office. There were no details other than the atmosphere was “cordial”, a commitment that negotiations should continue and an announcement that the first item of business will be setting the agenda.

When talks ended abruptly in January, just days after beginning, both sides submitted their wish lists for agendas. The task now is for the two sides to sift through the respective wish lists, agree on items to negotiate and the order in which they will be tackled.

The priority for the Afghan government, Washington and NATO is a serious reduction in the violence leading to a cease-fire. The Taliban have said it is negotiable, but until now have resisted any immediate cease-fire.

Washington is reviewing the February 2020 peace deal link the previous Trump administration signed with the Taliban that calls for the final withdrawal of international forces by May 1. The Taliban have resisted suggestions of even a brief extension, but a consensus is mounting in Washington for a delay in the withdrawal deadline.

There is even a suggestion of a smaller intelligence-based force staying behind that would focus almost exclusively on counter-terrorism and an increasingly active and deadly Islamic State affiliate, headquartered in eastern Afghanistan.

But neither Washington nor NATO has yet to announce a decision on the fate of an estimated 10,000 troops, including 2,500 American soldiers, still in Afghanistan. The Biden administration has emphasized a political solution to the protracted Afghan conflict, retained Zalmay Khalilzad, the man who negotiated the US peace deal with the Taliban and until now avoided any definitive statements about the road forward.

The resumption in talks in Doha follows on the heels of a blizzard of diplomatic activity including a steady stream of officials to Pakistan and Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa.