Pakistan urges Taliban to get on with Afghan government talks

Disagreements over a prisoner swap have dragged on for months and Afghan casualties have mounted

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi walks with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (2nd L), the leader of the Taliban delegation, upon his arrival at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) office in Islamabad, Pakistan August 25, 2020. Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA)/Handout via REUTERS/ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.

Pakistan has urged the Taliban to begin talks quickly with the Afghan government to end decades of conflict, but warned “spoilers” may attempt to block negotiations.

A high-level Taliban-led delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar met Pakistan's most senior diplomat as Afghan talks remain on hold while the sides haggle over prisoner releases.

Pakistan's support for negotiations is seen as key to any success, with both Washington and Kabul believing Islamabad still has considerable influence over the militant movement it helped raise.

The country's Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, told the envoys “there was no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan and that a political settlement was the only way forward,” a government statement said.

America has repeatedly called on Islamabad to help coax the Taliban into meeting their government enemies and cutting violence which kills and wounds tens of thousands each year.

Pakistan's government said it had “underlined that this historic opportunity must be seized … to secure an inclusive, broad-based and comprehensive negotiated political solution”.

The February 29 troop withdrawal deal signed between America and the Taliban had been due to set up talks on a political settlement between Kabul and the militants. Instead, disagreements over a prisoner swap have dragged on for months even as US troops have left and Afghan casualties have mounted. The Taliban have said they will not begin talks until a remaining batch of 80 militant prisoners is freed. Those 80 include convicted terrorists accused of suicide bombings against civilians and killing foreign troops and nationals.

Kabul and Washington have for years accused Islamabad of playing a double game, both claiming to aid the Afghan and Nato-led coalition fighting the militants, but also helping the Taliban who operate from havens in Pakistan.

Islamabad still wants the Taliban to have a role in governing Afghanistan, but now thinks this is best achieved through talks, American officials believe.

A Pentagon intelligence assessment released earlier this year judged that Pakistan had encouraged the Taliban to participate in peace talks, “but refrained from applying coercive pressure that would seriously threaten its relationship with the Afghan Taliban to dissuade the group from conducting further violence”.

Taliban leaders also mistrust the Pakistani government and have become more independent as they have been allowed to set up political offices in the Gulf and have grown in sway in Afghanistan.

A senior diplomat told The National that Pakistan's support could not guarantee peace, but Pakistan could easily sabotage any agreement it did not like.

Pakistan denies supporting the Taliban and says any influence it once had has waned. A senior Pakistani official said a peaceful Afghanistan would benefit Pakistan itself and prevent a return to the insurgent bloodshed of last decade.

He said Pakistan wanted to help talks, but was wary of becoming a scapegoat if they derailed later.

"It's not going to be a smooth process," the official told The National. "We do not want to be in a position where the world says you guarantee that this comes to a conclusion."

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