Saturday 25 March 2017

Taliban in secret ceasefire talks with Afghan leadership

Trucks carrying fuel supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan explode after an attack in the outskirts of Quetta, Pakistan
Trucks carrying fuel supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan explode after an attack in the outskirts of Quetta, Pakistan

Kim Sengupta in Kabul

Secret negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership aimed at ending the war have begun, diplomatic sources have revealed.

Meetings, which included delegates of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban's Pakistan-based governing body that is overseen by Mullah Mohammed Omar, are believed to have taken place in Dubai. The Taliban had previously rejected any political negotiations until Western forces had left Afghanistan.

Talks have also taken place in Kabul with "indirect representatives" of the insurgency. It remains unclear whether this is a parallel process to the one taking part in the United Arab Emirates. According to reports, Pakistani officials, led by the former foreign minister, Aftab Ahmed Shirpao, were present at meetings at the Serena Hotel in the Afghan capital.

The Dubai discussions are said to have centred on the conditions under which the Taliban would agree to a ceasefire. They have dropped the demand for Western forces to withdraw before peace talks can open but are insisting on an agreed timetable for a NATO exit.

The extreme Islamist movement ran Afghanistan between 1996 and the US-led invasion in 2001 and was notorious for its hardline interpretation of Islam, banning such things as music and education for girls. The movement was branded a terrorist organisation by the US after being toppled.

According to diplomats, representatives of the Taliban could initially be brought back into governance at local levels as part of a reconciliation process.

One-eyed

It is also claimed that a deal may involve Mullah Omar, the one-eyed religious leader who fled Afghanistan on a motorbike shortly after the 2001 invasion. Human rights and women's groups have long feared a political settlement that would allow the Taliban back into power and water down rights guaranteed under the constitution.

Military setbacks are thought to have influenced renewed US backing for the idea of negotiating an end to the conflict. The White House yesterday said that Barack Obama "supports" attempts to negotiate with the Taliban, but stressed its members must respect Afghan law and lay down their arms.

Clandestine meetings are believed to have taken place between senior Taliban members and CIA officials, according to Pakistani officials.

Fraught

Pakistan remains extremely wary of the Dubai process. News of meetings comes at a particularly fraught time in relations between Pakistan and the West.

On September 30, three Pakistani soldiers were killed by missiles fired from NATO helicopters in what appeared to have been an accident.

But the Pakistani authorities responded last week by shutting down the Khyber Pass, which is used by NATO supply convoys heading into Afghanistan. The closure has left hundreds of trucks bottlenecked at the one remaining route into Afghanistan from Pakistan.

Since the border closure, NATO convoys have been struck six times by militants. (© Independent News Service)

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